Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments Approved

After nearly nine months and 19 different meetings and workshops, the Town Council voted 5-2 in favor of approving the Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.  Four ordinances were amended relating to density, height, building footprint, and commercial space requirements.  The Town Council first discussed these zoning ordinances during a workshop on February 1 in which The Szanton Company, the developer of a proposed multi-family affordable housing project, described the project and the need for ordinance changes in order to move forward  [Article]. Since February, there have been two public hearings and a great amount of engagement from residents via emails and public statements [See Planning Board April 20 Public Hearing Article. See Town Council September 13 Public Hearing Article.]

Prior to the council voting on the amendments, 13 citizens utilized the opportunity for public comment to express support or opposition; the positions were nearly equally divided.  Those in favor of the amendments also spoke in favor of providing affordable housing in Cape Elizabeth. Most of those in opposition acknowledged that they supported affordable housing however, via methods that do not require zoning ordinance changes and do adhere to the 2014 Town Center Plan requiring commercial space on the first floor.  Assuming that the council would approve the amendments, several speakers mentioned the pursuit of a petition which could send the amendments to a referendum.

Before placing their votes, several councilors offered rationale for their decision.  Councilor Penny Jordan shared the following: 

I have heard everybody, but I believe that the people who support this project see Cape Elizabeth as part of the broader [southern Maine] community.  I truly feel it’s the right thing; I believe Cape Elizabeth is part of a big community. What is it that we can do to help Portland, South Portland and neighboring communities address some of the [housing and employment] challenges facing them at this time?  It’s time for Cape Elizabeth not to sit on the sidelines any longer — and that’s why I vote in favor of these amendments.

Councilor Nicole Boucher said in response to public comments that Cape Elizabeth can do something different, “I am really proud to put forward that we did do different in Cape Elizabeth; we are offering a development that has unheard of three-bedroom units.  I think we are doing our part for the community as a large global unit that we are.”

Councilor Gretchen Noonan said: 

Our family benefits from living in the greater Portland area with the jobs, the culture, and the recreation, but Cape offers the benefits of a rural community.  At first blush, a four-story building in town, I was really not that excited about it.  But, I feel strongly feel that we can’t continue to reap the benefits of living in the Portland area without shouldering some of the responsibilities as well.

Councilor Valerie Deveraux said: 

We have an opportunity to really think about what we are doing and what we are planning. Do we want this big of a development? Is this really the only place for affordable housing? I feel that affordable housing really needs to be where there are other kids to play with, where there is a neighborhood, not in the middle of a town center.  I feel we all really want affordable housing that we are rushing to do this.  We have a lot that will accommodate a certain size building; why not build to that size? Why do we have to change all of this?  Why are we giving away town land to a developer for parking?  I think we are not seeing the forest for the trees.

Chair Jamie Garvin surmised that since his tenure on the Town Council the affordable housing amendments has generated some of the most substantial public input, "I want to thank most importantly the members of the public who have voiced their perspectives and shared with us their thoughts on these amendments."  Garvin added, "I also want to thank the town staff who have put in countless hours on this and have produced voluminous amounts of information at our requests.”  Garvin continued his thanks by commending fellow councilors: 

I’ve seen a really impressive amount of diligence on this issue; a commitment to understanding the complexities; a commitment to doing an impressive amount of research; a commitment to openly hearing from the community, and experts.  It’s been really gratifying to to see folks rolling up their sleeves. This has been, in my opinion, some of the more impressive work of this council since my tenure in terms of commitment to the process.

In favor of the amendments and goals of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, Garvin added, "I don’t feel that this in any way undermines the work of the Comprehensive Plan.”  He referenced that within the plan there is a suggestion to, “Consider changes in policies and ordinances in order to accomplish some of the goals outlined.”  Garvin pointed out that the remaining vacant lot at the town center Village Green is likely to provide retail or restaurant services in the future, “When taken in totality, I think that this entire subdivision is completely in the spirt of mixed use as laid out in Town Center Plan and later validated in the Comprehensive Plan.”

With the Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments passed, The Szanton Company's proposed Dunham Court affordable housing project next seeks Town Council approval of amendments to the Town Center Infrastructure Improvement Downtown Tax Increment Financing District and Development Program.  A public hearing on the Tax Increment Financing amendments preceded the council's vote on the Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments.  Upon conclusion of the public hearing, the council voted to add an extra workshop on Wednesday, October 27 to further discuss financing associated with this project.

Meeting materials and video recording are available here

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