Council Passes Highland Lake Moratorium

posted Sep 18, 2017, 1:17 PM by Joseph Bickard

WINDHAM — “Nobody has said ‘no’ to anything. What we’re saying is ‘whoa.'”

That’s what Windham Town Councilor Donna Chapman said Tuesday night before the council voted 6-0 to enact a 180-day emergency moratorium on development in the Highland Lake watershed.

The move appears to have effectively stalled new construction around the lake for the time being as officials seek to gather more information about the health of the lake.

The moratorium temporarily halts clearing, earth moving, vegetation removal and construction of driveways, parking spaces or patio surfaces in areas larger than 500 square feet. It impacts a wide range of development in the watershed – from larger projects like the proposed Highland Views manufactured housing park and mixed-use development to single-family homes.

Both a developer and an individual hoping to build a single-family home near the lake expressed reservations about the moratorium Tuesday night before the council voted.

Though several councilors said they weren’t trying to target any specific projects, the Highland Views proposal from Chase Custom Homes & Financing of Westbrook has repeatedly been highlighted as a concern by the local lake association and has come up in past council discussions on the moratorium.

John Chase, owner of Chase Custom Homes, suggested that the councilors should have facts and logic to back up a moratorium before voting.

“You took an oath, I read your oath, and you need to make sure that you follow the oath of what you signed up for. And I don’t think you’re doing it, unless you know the facts and logic for an emergency moratorium,” Chase said.

Chase’s lawyer, Richard Abbondanza questioned whether the move met the town’s own standard for an emergency moratorium.

“Your charter is very clear what needs to be proven, and the draft paperwork that you have submitted for the public states what that is. And there needs to be a showing to meet a public emergency affecting life, health, property or the public peace,” Abbondanza said. “…(I)f it’s going to be done on an emergency basis, there’s a very high standard you have to be satisfied that has been met. And I would question whether or not that standard has been met.”

Abbondanza said Chase has a vested interest in protecting property values at the lake.

“The last thing that I want to do is this – hurt that lake,” Chase said. “I’m going to move there, so I’m going to have a home there. And I have children there … and you think I want them swimming in a problem? Not so.”

“If you stop me for six months, you’re probably going to hurt that lake even more if you don’t let me go in there and protect the lake,” he continued. “And I’m going to put up the necessary barriers to make that happen.”

In a later interview, Chase said he has invested $1.3 million in his Highland Views project over the seven months it has been in the approval process.

Larger developments are not the only projects that will be caught up in the moratorium. Nancy Cloutier told the council Tuesday she purchased a lot near the lake in June with the understanding she could build a house. She had been hoping to begin construction as soon as possible.

“I’m not a developer, I’m just a person wanting to build my home. I don’t know about water stuff and all that. This is new to us,” Cloutier said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to us.”

Cloutier said after the meeting that she only learned of the moratorium in the last week from her driveway contractor, who had also just been alerted. She has a permit to build the driveway, but not to build the home.

Despite the concerns raised by Cloutier, Chase and Abondonza, the councilors present unanimously approved the moratorium, which they had discussed in draft form at last week’s meeting. Councilor Timothy Nangle was absent Tuesday night.

“I can understand not everybody will be happy with our decision, but I stand wholeheartedly behind the moratorium,” Chapman said.

Members of the Highland Lake Association, who made the initial request for the moratorium, appeared happy with the vote, applauding it later at the meeting. They have argued that the lake could be nearing a “tipping point” of water quality. Located mainly between Windham and Falmouth with a smaller portion in Westbrook, the lake has seen a mysterious but temporary bloom of cyanobacteria during part of the past four summers.

Councilor Jarrod Maxfield wasn’t particularly happy with either the lake association or developers for their respective roles and actions in the process.

“I’m pretty frustrated with most everybody in this room, to be honest. And I think we should all take a look at how this whole process unfolded,” Maxfield said. He said he was frustrated that the lake association didn’t get involved in the process sooner and that developers didn’t speak before the council until Tuesday night.

A  moratorium presents an opportunity for all parties to work together, he said.

“I feel horrible that your development gets caught up in it. I feel horrible that that woman in the back, who’s purchased something, and now will be delayed in building, gets caught up in it,” Maxfield said. “But at the end of the day, if that lake tips – the funny thing is, you’re all going to be in the same boat, pun intended. And it’s going to be a boat surrounded by murky, dead water.”

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.