An eight-hour hearing on an affordable housing reform bill included candid talk about Maine’s rural-urban divide, workforce development and municipal zoning, but at the heart of the debate was a simple question about who should have the power to make such decisions.

Opponents say the bill from House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, is a state power grab that would undercut municipal land-use authority and home rule. Fecteau and supporters say the bill cuts red tape and doubles down on local control by empowering landowners.

“You use the phrase that this is the truest form of local control, but I find that hard to believe,” Rep. Dwayne Prescott, R-North Waterboro, told Fecteau at the start of the hearing. “The bill is clearly the heavy hand of government telling communities what they’re going to do.”

During a break in the hearing, Fecteau said that he wanted to build a consensus in support of the bill, and would be willing to work with the committee to overcome some of their concerns, but dismissed the home rule argument as a red herring.

“It gives control to the most local entity of all – Maine people,” Fecteau said. “This is not taking power away from people. Just the opposite. It is empowering local people to exercise their right to liberty and self-determination.”

The debate turned into the housing committee’s longest public hearing of the legislative session. More than 150 people submitted written testimony, ranging from multipage economic arguments to single-sentence judgments and hailing from Maine’s biggest cities to its smallest towns.


The bill, L.D. 2003, would allow construction of four-unit dwellings and accessory dwelling units where single-family is allowed, where they would face the same regulatory hurdles that single-family homes do, such as setback requirements, wastewater tie-ins or parking.

It would prohibit towns from setting local housing growth caps, require towns to designate a housing priority zone and establish a state board to review local housing permit decisions, much like the ones already in place in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The housing mandates drew the most ire from the public, including residents like Frank Thiboutot of Falmouth, who said he left his native city of Portland years ago because of its embrace of government overreach like this housing bill.

“Self-government and local control are the backbone of our country and what made us exceptional, not the state or federal government dictating what’s best for free individuals,” he said. “This bill would be just the first step for cities to regulate surrounding towns and rural areas.”

Others opposed what they called “one-size-fits-all” zoning, like Meghan Garder, a Democratic member of the Orono Town Council. She said that reform bill would backfire in Orono, the host of the University of Maine’s flagship campus, causing community disruption without helping those it intends.

“The blanket allowance of four-unit buildings could easily result in up to twenty college students wedged in between family homes, which we already know from experience would likely result in the town having to pour even more resources into addressing conflicts in those neighborhoods,” Gardner said.


Given the money to be made in student housing, developers would target their housing to the long-term transient population, not the young families with children and seniors the bill is purporting to help, Gardner said.

The most popular parts of the bill were the incentives. It would create a $1.3 million state grant program for towns to develop land-use rules to increase housing opportunities. Towns willing to study their land-use rules could get up to $75,000 in grants over three years.

For some Mainers, housing relief can’t come soon enough. Lucas Blom, a 34-year-old married graduate student at the University of Maine in Orono, wakes up in the middle of the night worried about how he and his wife will find a place to live in southern Maine – where there are good-paying jobs.

They will be beginning good careers this spring, but still won’t earn enough to live in the Portland area.

“More stressful than finding a job is the daunting prospect of finding a place to rent and hopefully, in a few years’ time, a home to buy,” said Blom, who now lives in Bangor. This bill “will open a path for me and my wife to stay in the state that we love.”

They had planned to move to Cape Elizabeth, but that dream fell through after an affordable housing proposal there failed due to local opposition. Now they are looking for a place to rent in southern Maine while they save money to build a four-unit house for them, aging in-laws, and a disabled relative and his caretaker.

The housing crisis has hit home with Allen Wright of Old Orchard Beach through his adult children.

“One was continually shut out of obtaining their first home due to the current market situation, despite being married and both spouses having employment,” Wright testified. “Our other child is basically homeless despite working full time at a minimum wage job.”

The shortage of affordable places to live is harming Maine’s youth, its elderly and its families, Wright said, but any Mainer is vulnerable, given the harsh economic realities facing America today. There are more than than 25,000 residents on affordable housing waitlists in Maine now, he said.

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