ELLSWORTH — The city’s population is on the rise, and so is residential construction.
While the 2020 U.S. census showed population grew by 658 residents in the past decade to 8,399, a boom in new housing construction in the past 18 months — during the pandemic — could make room for more. New building permits were issued for 40 single-family homes, two duplexes, one 29-unit senior housing development and one 12-unit apartment building.
The question is, as population and housing stock grow, how will it change the city landscape? Location, availability and affordability are all facets of the question.
Assessing data shows that about 1,200 residential housing units were added between 1975 and 2000. And the subsequent numbers indicate that Ellsworth is on track to add another 1,200 units by 2025, City Assessor Larry Gardner noted.
“Do we wish, and/or where do we wish, the majority of our next 1,200 units to be located for optimum economic land use?” he asked.
Currently, there are about 4,240 residential units in Ellsworth, with 411 of them seasonal and 3,615 being single-family homes, according to city tax records. The latest census data, which is a little older, shows 3,585 households living in Ellsworth. Neither the city nor the census data reflects in detail how many units are short-term, seasonal rentals, such as those through AirBnB.
An update to the city’s comprehensive plan is in the works, and housing is one of the bigger issues it will address. The plan was last updated in 2004, but a 2012 overhaul to city zoning regulations was done with housing in mind, Economic Development Director Janna Richards said. This included encouraging high-density housing in the urban core — the downtown area and neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown.
Richards said that 110 rental units were approved, built and permitted from 2008 to 2016. In the next 2½ years, 226 rental units were “somewhere in the process” of being approved, permitted or built.
“That is double the amount of units in only about a quarter of the time,” she noted.
More housing means making sure the infrastructure can support it, especially when high-density housing is considered, Richards said.
While a new wastewater treatment plant completed in 2012 “increased capacity greatly,” Richards said that isn’t necessarily enough.
“Are the sewer mains in the right place to connect to?” she posed. “It’s the same with water [lines].”
And for subdivisions, which can add multiple single-family or duplex homes on comparatively small parcels, she said the current economy plays the biggest role.
“One of the biggest variables is recession and money,” Richards said. “Subdivisions are the last thing that comes back because you really have to have free-flowing money.”
In early summer, the Legislature formed an emergency commission to study housing and zoning in Maine, with a report due in November. The Maine Municipal Association (MMA) has a seat on the commission, and City Planner Elena Piekut is in MMA’s working group that will help the association represent municipalities on the commission. Housing affordability and availability is at the forefront of those discussions, Piekut noted. And, of course, money is an issue.
“Probably the biggest hope being expressed in this group is that the state doesn’t pass new planning and zoning mandates without also funding help for communities to carry them out and achieve compliance,” Piekut said.
The kinds of housing Ellsworth needs runs from senior housing to workforce to affordable housing, she and Richards both said. Resident Rick Lyles, who sits on the planning board and on the Ellsworth Housing Authority, which deals with low-income housing, said the issue is complex and needs additional attention.
“I think that Ellsworth needs more housing opportunities across the board, all income levels and family sizes,” Lyles said, adding, “Hopefully, a new comprehensive plan will shine some light on [complicating] issues and perhaps suggest some solutions that can be endorsed by a variety of actors in the city.”
One complication is what some observers describe as a not-in-my-backyard – or NIMBY – mentality toward multi-unit housing development. Others see opposition as an effort to preserve the type of neighborhoods that attracted residents in the first place. When developers add apartments and townhouses to the downtown core, residents in those neighborhoods often push back. Local developer Jonathan Bates, who proposed a 12-unit apartment building on downtown Pine Street, is still meeting with neighbors and downtown stakeholders on the design, well over a year after starting the process.
Lyles noted the “conflicting goals” of building higher density housing in neighborhoods where homeowners want the neighborhood character unchanged. “Neither perspective is completely wrong or completely right,” he said.
“Abutter opposition is typical no matter where it is,” Piekut noted. “Strengthening some pieces of regulation would help.”