CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council on Monday adopted a tax-rebate program for residents 65 and older. 

Councilors also voted unanimously to hold a Jan. 23 public hearing on a citizen petition supporting an ordinance that would prohibit them from releasing public rights to the town’s shoreline by a simple majority vote.

The tax assistance program, implemented by ordinance, provides annual relief of up to $500 for residents who have owned their property in town for at least 10 years, and have an annual combined household income of no more than $60,000. Applicants must also receive the state’s Homestead Exemption to qualify.

Town Manager Matt Sturgis said qualified residents must reapply for the program each year, because incomes may change. 

Tax Assessor Clint Swett said the program is modeled after one in Scarborough, where the estimated 2019 population is more 19,600. In comparison, Cape Elizabeth’s population is less than 9,500. Based on the average age of property owners, Swett said the program’s budget could be based on the assumption that approximately 150 residents would participate.

Tax relief for seniors was a Town Council goal for 2018. The budget approved by the council last May includes $75,000 to fund the program.

Monday’s vote was 5-1, with Councilor Chris Straw opposed. He said he agrees with the concept, but could not support a proposal with a “residency duration requirement.”

Chairman Jamie Garvin, who championed the effort, said that requirement could be revisited, but felt adopting the proposal was a “great first step.”

“I’m happy to support it,” Garvin said. 

Sturgis noted that the ordinance includes eligibility for renters, too.

Qualifying residents may be able to receive rebate checks by March 2019. Swett said he hopes to make applications available online. In the meantime, they’re available in the assessing office and can also be mailed.

“Tell your neighbors, tell your friends, tell your relatives,” Swett said. “Take advantage of the program. I think it’ll help a bit.”

Paper street petition

Last month, members of the Save Our Shoreline Access Coalition submitted a petition in support of an ordinance that would require a transfer of town-owned land to be supported by a super-majority of five councilors or approved by a public referendum.

According to Town Clerk Debra Lane, the petition included 913 signatures, but only 836 were certified – three more than the 833 required, which represents 10 percent of registered voters. According to a memo by Lane, the invalid signatures were either duplicates, illegible, or not from registered voters. 

The grassroots group formed during an ongoing dispute over whether the town should accept or vacate its claim to various paper streets – roads laid out in subdivisions, but never built or accepted by the town. Vacating would mean the town forfeits its right to ever develop the streets for public access, a move SOS opposes. 

Following the public hearing next week, the town may either adopt the proposed ordinance after a review by the town’s attorney or send it to a public referendum. Sturgis said the vote will likely take place in February. 

The Town Charter gives the town attorney the authority to modify the proposed ordinance to avoid confusion or illegality, but without altering its substance.

During Monday’s meeting, coalition member Colette Howe thanked Sturgis, Lane and the council for their help throughout the petition process.

“It’s been a learning process for everyone,” she said. “… We thank you for your time and effort.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.