CAPE ELIZABETH – The committee that’s been reviewing and updating the Town Center Plan for Cape Elizabeth is now ready to forward its final recommendations to the Town Council.

The Town Center Plan Committee will meet at 4 p.m. on Monday, May 19, to give its stamp of approval to a draft plan that will require council approval for implementation.

The overall vision of the plan is to “create an identifiable, vibrant town center that includes mixed retail uses, … a safe and inviting pedestrian and bicycle environment, a common meeting place, visual vitality and linkages to the town’s open space and nearby residential neighborhoods.”

Councilor David Sherman, one of two council liaisons to the Town Center Plan Committee, said this week he’s “very pleased with the final plan” and that the committee has done a good job in creating an updated vision for what the town center should look like.

The original Town Center Plan was created in 1993. Last fall the Town Council decided it was “time to revisit the plan and take a fresh look at the Town Center with the goal (of) support(ing) a vibrant, business and pedestrian friendly town center,” according to the committee charge.

The Town Plan Committee consists of nine members with five residents, two councilors, one member of the Planning Board and one member of the School Board.

Originally the committee was given a deadline of Dec. 31, 2013, but the Town Council later extended the deadline to June 30 to finish the plan.

This week, Sherman said having a plan for the town center is important for the future of Cape Elizabeth and called the plan an “essential tool.”

In the final draft of the plan, there are five goals and seven specific recommendations for how to meet those goals.

Sherman said the most controversial proposal in the plan is the idea of creating a town green on privately owned land situated between Town Hall and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust building on Ocean House Road.

The owner of that piece of property has asked the town to consider changing its wetland ordinance to allow him to fill in some wetland areas, which would then allow him to get several buildings on the property while also setting aside about an acre for use as a town green.

Sherman said whether the wetlands ordinance is amended is a decision the Town Council will make, but the creation of a town green is one of the goals outlined in the new Town Center Plan.

Another proposal in the plan, which could cause debate, is the creation of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district that would be designed to capture some of the value of new development in the town center in order to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks and stormwater management.

Other goals in the plan call for promoting safe pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular circulation, with an emphasis on completing the sidewalk network in the town center, as well as identifying portions of Ocean House Road as Cape Elizabeth’s de facto main street.

In addition, the new Town Center Plan calls for making the center of Cape Elizabeth the primary location for new commercial development, including small-scale, mixed-use projects.

The plan also focuses on improving the visual appeal of the town center, particularly through the “continued application of the Town Center design standards to new development and formalizing the design standards for infrastructure improvements.”

According to the executive summary of the Town Center Plan, while “residents would like the Town Center to be a gathering place, pedestrian-friendly and attractive” they don’t want “to divert resources from higher priorities such as open space and schools.”

That’s one reason why Sherman said the development of a TIF district would be important and should be one of the first items that the Town Council looks at in regard to implementing the new Town Center Plan.

The Town Center zoning district stretches along Ocean House Road from the Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church to the intersection of Old Ocean House Road, as well as the entire school campus, including the section of Scott Dyer Road running from Ocean House Road to the middle school, along with a short section of Shore Road. In total, the zone encompasses 144 acres.

The new Town Center Plan estimates it could cost as much as $2.7 million to finish the sidewalk system, as well as make connections to the residential neighborhoods included in the town center.

In terms of making Ocean House Road into a more traditional main street for Cape Elizabeth, the Town Center Plan is encouraging a design overhaul that would include separating the sidewalks from the road with planted esplanades, requiring that new buildings be constructed closer to the road with the parking in the side or rear and adopting access management techniques, such as limiting the number and width of curb cuts.

In addition, the plan calls on the town to work with the Maine Department of Transportation to reduce the classification of Ocean House Road, which is also state Route 77, from arterial to a “lesser classification more consistent with a main street in order to reduce the maximum speed allowed.”

For a town green, the Town Center Plan said it should be “highly visible” and ideally have frontage on Ocean House Road. The green would be used for passive recreation and also for town-wide events, the plan states.

Since there is no public will to purchase a plot of land to make a town green, the plan recommends that the Town Council “pursue public/private partnership opportunities.”

In order to make this happen on the privately owned property between Town Hall and the land trust, the Town Center Plan calls on the council to consider making an amendment to its wetland ordinance indicating that alterations to certain wetland areas “would be acceptable where a substantial public benefit is created.”

The plan acknowledges that this plot of land could be developed without the inclusion of a village green, but states that “the green adds to the desirability of the potential development and advances town goals” at the same time.

This week, Sherman said that the state does not consider the wetland area on the privately owned lot in the town center as “significant,” which means the property owner would not need to seek a permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to develop his land.

Regarding the proposed TIF district, the Town Center Plan indicates that in the past 10 years more than $860,000 in property value has been added to the town center, which means about $113,600 in TIF funds could have been generated for investment into infrastructure improvements.

Assuming that in the next 10 years the town adds another $800,000 in value, the proposed TIF district could collect nearly $200,000, according to the plan.

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