Nonprofit agency to buy only land in Belfast zoned for big-box development

Sep. 1—BELFAST, Maine — A non-profit organization devoted to helping low-income Waldo County residents has just bought a 78-acre parcel of land off Route 3 in order to consolidate and eventually expand the services it offers.

Waldo Community Action Partners paid $895,000 for the land, using funds that had been saved over the years. The purchase may one day result in the construction of new housing for the housing-pinched community, also means the only place in Belfast zoned for big box stores is now off the market.

"What we've been hoping to do is find our organization a long-term home," Donna Kelley, the president and CEO of Waldo CAP said Tuesday. "This is something that our board has been wanting to do for a while ... It's quite an accomplishment for the board and organization. The possibilities are pretty exciting."

The property that will become Waldo CAP's new home is located next to the Tractor Supply and across the street from the Bank of America complex. Earlier this summer, Penobscot Community Health Care, the largest federally qualified health center in Maine, announced that it was under contract to buy that complex. Taken together, the two property transfers on the western side of Belfast will likely lead to good changes in the city, according to local officials.

"This is a new center for a lot of growth, in terms of jobs and services," City Councilor Mary Mortier said. "It's exciting. Change is in the air."

It's possible that the purchase will put to rest a long-simmering debate in the community about big box stores. In 2007, after years of debate and strife about this kind of development in Belfast, the City Council identified the property as the only one in the city that could be developed for a retail store larger than 75,000 square feet. The property, owned until now by New Hampshire-based developers, also included the portion of land that recently became home to the new Tractor Supply.

For Waldo CAP, while change is coming, it's going to take a while to get there. The 55-year-old agency helps low-income people and families, offering transportation services, an early childhood program, energy assistance and other programs. Right now, the organization rents spaces around the county to host its offices, programs, and bus fleet parking, including the Belfast Center and the Wentworth Event Center, both in Belfast.

The organization soon will start to work with the city, state and community to figure out a plan to develop its new land. Near-term goals include building office, classroom and vehicle maintenance space on the property, with later goals including developing community trails and low-income, workforce and special needs housing there.

Buying the property was just the first hurdle, Kelley said.

"What we're looking forward to is the collaborative partnership with the city," she said. "We'll have to go through zoning and planning work. The pressing thing for us is really to build space for our staff and the community we serve."

A Belfast land-use ordinance requires that any project on the property be subject to contract, or spot, rezoning, meaning that the City Council will make the final decision and not the Planning Board.

City officials were enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by Waldo CAP's purchase of the land.

"I think it's fantastic," Mayor Eric Sanders said. "They'll be great owners. It's a great space and has been for sale for a long time. I'm very much a fan of Waldo CAP, and the housing aspect intrigues me greatly ... We're pleased as punch up in the council chambers."

Walter Ash, the city's longtime mayor who now is a member of Waldo CAP's board of directors, said that this move has been a long time coming.

"The CAP agency has grown and we need a campus of our own," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it'll happen, and it'll be good. It helps an awful lot of people, that CAP agency, it really does."

He and current council members said that times have changed and big-box store developers — other than Tractor Supply — have not been interested in building in Belfast. Years ago, executives from Walmart visited Belfast and decided against constructing a store here, Ash said.

"It's just not in the cards," he said. "No matter what people say, they just weren't interested."

Although a few developers have kicked the tires on the idea of coming to Belfast over the years the land was on the market, only Tractor Supply actually came through, Mortier said.

"I don't think it's a loss that we no longer have the area that had been denoted for big-box stores of a certain size," she said. "It's not a loss. It's a gain to the community."

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