OXFORD – The rising costs of construction and not the state’s permitting process forced Lowe’s to postpone plans to construct a home improvement and garden center on Route 26, according to the firm’s site development manager.

“It is on hold indefinitely,” confirmed Todd Morey of the proposed 137,000-square-foot building. It was planned for a 11.8-acre parcel leased from the Bob Bahre family of Maine and New Hampshire. The property straddles the Norway-Oxford town line.

Rumors had been floating around Oxford and Norway all week that the company was pulling out of the project.

On Wednesday, Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings said, “I do not believe they’re out, but I think they are postponed.” He said Bob Bahre told him last Friday that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection permitting process had delayed the project.

Bob Bahre confirmed Thursday that he blames DEP entirely for the loss of the multimillion-dollar project that would have brought 160 jobs to the area.

DEP officials say their process did not delay the project.

“We didn’t sit on it,” said DEP licensing coordinator Jim Cassida of the Lowe’s permit that was submitted to DEP last April, and approved in early November.

Cassida said the permitting process is very complicated, and in this case there were several “back-and-forth” requests for information between the DEP and the petitioner.

“It’s not unusual for projects to go back and forth. The time frame depends on how quick the information gets back to us. It was not unusual in that respect. There were no troublesome issues. It was all pretty routine,” said Cassida, who was unaware the project is now on hold.

“We have a statutory timetable we have to do things in. Sometimes we take part of the time. Sometimes we take all the time,” said DEP environmental specialist Kristen Chamberlain, who worked on the application.

“There was no outstanding issue that held things up. We have a lot of standards, and it takes a lot of time to make it right,” she said.

According to Chamberlain, the DEP has 185 days from the date the permit is OK’d for processing to either deny or approve the permit.

Lowe’s then has two years from the date of the permit approval to begin construction. It may apply to renew the permit if construction has not begun, she said.

“There was zero public input. I didn’t hear from anyone,” Chamberlain said.

Morey said concerns by local officials that the state deep-sixed the project are not entirely true.

“That had something to do with it, but it’s not fair to lay the whole blame on it. I’d rather get a permit here than in New Jersey or New York,” he said.

In December, the Oxford and Norway Planning Boards issued their final approval for the $12 million to $15 million project to be developed across from Hannaford’s Supermarket.

But earlier this month, Morey had said construction of the home improvement center still appeared to be a go for spring, despite some permitting and unspecified “land” issues that were delaying construction.

Morey said the decision to suspend the project was based on construction costs, which in part were determined by the requirements from the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Transportation and local permitting specifications. Those requirements included widening intersections, pond infiltration and a cash contribution toward Norway’s roadway system.

While company officials anticipated the requirements fairly accurately, Morey said they did not anticipate the escalating construction costs during the past year.

“They were not very far off (on calculating requirements), but what happens is we can’t accurately predict contractor pricing shooting up through the sky. Steel costs exploded,” he said.

Morey said it was not just one factor that caused the delay.

“It’s hard to say. It’s not any one thing. There may be a change in the way Lowe’s looks at building models,” he said.

Morey said he expects the land agreement with the Bahres will still be available should the company decide to come back as soon as six months to a year. Although there is nothing binding to make the Bahres hold the land, Morey said knowing the type of businessman Bob Bahre is, “Right now, it’s still on the table if we decide to revisit,” he said.

When asked on a scale of one to 10, how close to 10 he feels that the company will eventually come back to Oxford, Morey said an eight. When asked how strongly he felt they would come back within a year, he said a five or a six.

Currently, the company is proceeding with plans to build three other Lowe’s in Maine, including one in Bangor and one in Belfast. The company also is looking at three more undisclosed sites, Morey said, and at least one is within 30 miles of the proposed Oxford site.

“It’s unfortunate after all the permitting time, but it’s not the first time and it’s not last time this will happen,” he said of the project being sidelined.

 


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