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Council approves increased residential density for Town Center
By a 5-2 vote, the Town Council on April 12, 2010 approved a set of zoning ordinance amendments that would allow more residential development in the Town Center.
The amendments increase the density of multi-family dwelling units in the Town Center, an area along Ocean House Road bounded by Fowler Road to the south and Hill Way to the north, from 7,500 square feet of lot space per unit to 3,000 square feet. They also allow Town Center buildings to have more than 50 percent residential space, provided the first floor is all commercial.
The amendments are directed by the 2007 Comprehensive Plan and are the third in a package of ordinance updates intended to comply with the plan's recommendations.
While the majority of the councilors said they believed increased residential density would increase vibrancy in the Town Center, and encourage a diversity of housing choices in Cape Elizabeth, two councilors thought they would do neither.
Frank Governali and Sara Lennon voted against the amendments, in-part they said because they saw no need to encourage new development in a Town Center that has so many vacant store fronts.
"I think creating more commercial development is a little like putting the cart before the horse," said Governali, who also voted against the amendments as a member of the council's ordinance subcommittee.
The amendments were developed by the Planning Board, and after a public hearing last September, recommended by the board to the Town Council for consideration.
The council held its own public hearing April 12, but no one spoke. The council had planned to hear public comment at the April meeting and make its decision in May, but instead voted to pass the amendments after nearly an hour of discussion.
Council Chair Anne Swift-Kayatta, along with councilors David Sherman, Jessica Sullivan, Penny Jordan and Jim Walsh, voted for the amendments, primarily she said because of their support in the comprehensive plan. "That plan is like the constitution of the town," she said, adding that a citizen survey used to develop the plan said residents want the business development of the town to be in the Town Center District. She said she agrees with the plan's assertion that Cape Elizabeth needs more housing choices, and that the site-plan review mechanism for new development would allow public input on specific development proposals.
Councilor David Sherman also cited the comprehensive plan's recommendation as a reason for his support, saying it may even be the Town's legal responsibility to adopt the density changes in order to comply with the plan.
Walsh, who as a real-estate developer participated in an unsuccessful bid to develop the currently vacant property at 316 Ocean House Road, next to Town Hall, said the mixed residential use is key to supporting business in the Town Center.
"The rent stream coming from the rental was considered by the underwriters of the mortgage business to be the right balance for that type of development," Walsh said.
"It's risk at every level," he went on to say. "It's all about traffic and foot traffic coming to the center to shop and spend their $3 for their latte or whatever," he said.
He added, "Nothing says that this change is going to do anything, to the lot next door (to Town Hall) or to the one next to the high school."
While the density amendments apply to the entire Town Center, Town staff developed scenarios of potential impact by looking at properties at 316 Ocean House Road, and at 349 Ocean House Road next to the High School, because development proposals for those lots have site-plan approvals from the Planning Board. Both approved plans included four residential units, but with the new density, as many as 10 units could be included in the site plans, according to staff calculations.
The potential for development at 349 Ocean House Road in particular contributed to Governali's and Lennnon's vote against the increased density. Both said they believed development there inappropriate because of traffic flow and proximity to inexperienced teen drivers entering and leaving the High School campus.
Governali added he believed that the amendments unfairly facilitate greater return on investment for 316 and 349 Ocean House Road properties; and, that commercial development in the Town Center offers no more revenue benefit to the town than residential development does in residential zones. "A $1 million commercial property in downtown generates exactly the same revenue for the town as a $1 million home in Cross Hill," Governali said. "There is virtually no incremental benefit to the town from a revenue perspective for commercial development," he said.
Lennon said she sees the currently empty Ocean House Road lots as evidence that they are undesirable, and that it was not the Town's place to "sweeten the deal" by increasing residential density. She also said she disagreed with the idea that promoting larger developments add to the vibrancy of the Town Center. "To me this is the antithesis of that, adding yet more asphalt to an already very asphalt heavy (Town) center, encouraging people to be in cars instead of out of cars," she said. "So to me it doesn't pass the straight-face test of creating a village feel and vibrancy," Lennon said.