LEWISTON — After an emotional two-hour debate, the City Council voted 3-4 to deny rezoning a property on Webster Street that would have led to a senior housing development. 

Dozens packed the council chamber Tuesday night for what many councilors called one of the most difficult issues they’ve faced. 

Landowners Louis and Laurie Ouellette had planned to combine the Webster Street property with adjacent properties under their ownership for a multiunit senior housing project.

The rezoning would’ve changed the property surrounding 209 Webster St. from the neighborhood conservation A district, which does not allow multifamily structures, to the office residential district. The Ouellettes also own 151 and 153 East Ave., which are in the office residential district. 

Following the meeting, Ouellette said he was disappointed but that he’ll most likely build an apartment building on one of the East Avenue parcels and rethink development plans for the others. 

Many abutting neighbors have been strongly opposed to the project since it was first proposed last year. Since then, Ouellette has been bounced between the Planning Board and City Council. The Planning Board recently voted 6-1 in favor of the rezoning. 

On Tuesday, Councilors Jim Lysen, Shane Bouchard, Michael Lachance and Joline Landry-Beem voted against the measure. Councilor Tim Lajoie was absent, but had requested the item be tabled. Mayor Bob Macdonald voted in favor of the zone change. 

There is no second reading if a first reading fails. 

“I think you’re trying to do a good thing,” Bouchard told Ouellette at the meeting. “But the fact is, it’s not zoned for what you want to do. I believe in personal property rights. Yours and for the people around you.”

The council was in a familiar split on the issue, with a lengthy debate between councilors over details like wetlands and the importance of senior housing. There were also brief tense moments, with participants claiming intimidation or scare tactics used by the opposing side. 

On Tuesday, dozens of people spoke on both sides of the issue, either direct neighbors to the Ouellette project or supporters looking for a worthwhile senior housing project.

Many neighbors said the proposed three-story building would impact their privacy.  

One neighbor argued that the area would not be safe for seniors, would cause more traffic and would feature lighting that would shine into abutting homes. 

“We will lose the residential character,” another abutter said, adding that parts of the proposed building would provide a “direct line of sight into my home.”  

Ouellette said that under the current zoning, he’s already allowed to build a large church, school, or congregate care type of facility. He said he wanted to pursue a senior housing project because of the need in the area. 

“If you couldn’t take care of your mother, where would you like to put her?” he asked people at the meeting. 

His mother-in-law, Claire Pinette, an 80-year-old widow living on Reservoir Avenue, told the Sun Journal last week that the need for senior housing is rising as more people are living longer and healthier.

She’s lived in the home for 50 years, the place where she raised her four children. But she’s now looking to shed the reponsibilities associated with owning a home. 

“You reach a certain age, you want to downsize,” she said. “I saw this housing project, and thought ‘Oh my god this is wonderful.’ There just isn’t anything at all.” 

Reservoir Avenue isn’t too far from Webster Street. Pinette said she’s seen the neighborhood change over the years, with different types of uses coming in, like day care businesses. She argued that a senior housing development would not disrupt the character of the neighborhood. 

“The city needs it. If it doesn’t go through, it will send a very bad message,” she said. 

Councilor Golden said the “need for senior housing is growing everyday.”

Lysen, while voting against it, was visibly torn on the issue. He said rezones are a “natural occurrence” in the city, and that striking a balance between the neighborhood and the community need is “tough.” 

“He’s already done things above and beyond what other people are asked,” Cloutier said of Ouellette. “We’re getting to that place where it’s just about, ‘I don’t want it.'” 

Gil Arsenault, director of planning and code enforcement, said the project under consideration could have resulted in as many as 40 apartments for seniors.

In response to a recent request by the council to place further restrictions on the rezoning, civil engineering firm Sebago Technics did a wetland study that found no vernal pool. He said about 4,300 of the 10,000-square-foot wetland could be filled without a permit. 

Lachance, who was outspoken about the wetland impacts, said of the project, “If all the abutters thought this was a great idea, it would’ve been a done deal months ago.” 

Bruce Damon, chairman of the Planning Board, said the board resisted the project initially, but that the conditions put in place would have prevented many of the scenarios presented Tuesday. He said market rate projects from a private developer are hard to come by.

Councilor Joline Landry-Beem said she understands the need for senior housing, as a senior herself, and is thinking about downsizing. But, she said, she doesn’t think “this is the way our city should be going to get senior housing.”

“This isn’t the place to do it,” she said.

Bouchard, also voting against, said neighbors bought a home in the neighborhood conservation A district abutting woods. With a rezoning, he said, it changes the rules. 

“I’m not going to vote for it. I hope the people up here will actually listen to you this time,” he said. 

Many in attendance on both sides of the issue cited the city’s recently enacted comprehensive plan to bolster their argument. The plan lists more senior housing as a major goal, but also lists maintaining green space and preserving residential neighborhoods. 

At one point, following a number of public comments, Ouellette told the abutting neighbors that he’d sell them the property for $150,000. 

“Nothing will happen to it,” he said. “Opportunity!”

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