A part of Saco Island that was the site of an ambitious $40 million development proposal is going up for auction Friday.

Developer Bernie Saulnier of J&B Partners had been working for more than a year to garner public support and secure necessary approvals for his plans to transform the nearly 6-acre parcel of undeveloped land on the east side of the island in Saco’s downtown area. The project, called The Waters, would have included a mix of apartments, a boutique hotel and a marina.

The project never won any city approvals and is in limbo.

Saco Island – also known as Factory Island – sits in the Saco River between the downtowns of Biddeford and Saco. It links both cities’ historic mill districts, where developers in the last decade have transformed former textile factories into commercial and light industrial spaces and also housing.

City officials describe the Saco Island East property as a gateway to the city and say its development could have a significant impact on the core of the downtown. The property is assessed at $379,000, according to city records.

Joan Kurker, who holds a $350,000 mortgage on the Saco Island parcel, is foreclosing on and auctioning the property for breach of conditions of the mortgage, according to documents filed in the York County Registry of Deeds. A $20,000 deposit is required to bid during the auction, which is set to begin at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

The Saco City Council voted Monday to authorize City Administrator Kevin Sutherland to pay the $20,000 deposit to participate in the auction. Councilor William Doyle cast the lone vote against the motion, saying the city “is not a real estate company and we shouldn’t be there if we’re not there to buy a parcel.”

CITY WANTS TO ‘BE AT THE TABLE’

Sutherland said Wednesday that it had been “a bit of a surprise” when the public sale of the property was announced. Saulnier had met with city staff about his plans for Saco Island East, but had not formally submitted plans to the Planning Board.

“It is a unique site that could really benefit from the right kind of development,” Sutherland said.

The city thinks it’s important to “be at the table” at the auction, Sutherland said. The council authorized him to bid up to a certain amount, which he would not disclose.

If the property is purchased by another developer, the city will want to work closely with that person, Sutherland said. The property will require a significant amount of work to get it ready for development, including contamination cleanup and repairs to a sea wall. The city would like to see the property used in part to extend the city’s public river walk, he said.

Saulnier, who lives in Saco, declined to comment on the sale of the property.

His plan for the east side of Saco Island included residential units, a 50-room boutique hotel, a restaurant and retail space, a 69-slip marina and a walking path along the river. The housing would have been split between three buildings with a combined 87 apartment units and five townhouses.

Development plans ran into delays last summer when the Saco River Corridor Commission, a quasi-state organization that works to protect the environment along the corridor, tabled the application for the project.

Hotel developer Jim Brady, whose projects include The Press Hotel in Portland, has an option for a piece of land on the island to build a hotel. He said last week that he was unaware the ownership of the land could change, but his option is structured in a way that it will stay in place when the parcel is sold.

“We continue to have interest in the market and that site,” Brady said. “We continue to be bullish on the Biddeford-Saco market in general. We think that’s an amazing site.”

OTHER PROPOSALS CAME TO NAUGHT

Saulnier’s project was not the first plan that has been floated for the east side of Saco Island.

A different developer proposed building luxury condos and a marina more than a decade ago, but that project fell apart during the recession. A 2015 proposal by developer Sam Zaitlin to build a four-story, 50,000-square-foot office building with river views never came to fruition.

Saulnier acquired the Saco Island property in 2017 and approached the city about his redevelopment plan, but city officials asked him to slow down the process and take time to talk to the community before submitting formal plans to the Planning Board. He held a series of meetings about his plans and received some pushback from residents concerned about adding more traffic to the area.

Saulnier also has been pursuing a development project on Munjoy Hill in Portland.

He ran into opposition from Munjoy Hill neighbors when he pitched a six-story condominium development on Sheridan Street. Residents pushed back because the building would have obscured the view of Back Cove from a popular neighborhood park, and Saulnier agreed to reduce the height of the building. The Portland City Council ultimately approved a new height overlay zone that prevents any new development from obstructing the panoramic view from Fort Sumner Park.

In late 2017, the Portland Planning Board unanimously approved the site plan for Saulnier’s proposed four-story condominium complex on Sheridan Street. Saulnier’s company applied for a demolition permit in January 2018 to take down an existing house at the site, but the condo complex has not been built.

More than a dozen liens have been filed against Saulnier in York County in recent years. Most of the liens have been filed since 2015 for amounts in excess of $20,000.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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