As a 49-unit apartment building proposal for Cape Elizabeth’s town center makes its way through the approval process, town officials are taking tentative steps toward further, permanent changes to zoning laws that could pave the way for more affordable housing in the future.

The Cape Elizabeth Town Council took a step in that direction last week to send the Szanton Company’s request for zoning ordinance changes for the apartment project to the Ordinance Committee. Now officials are exploring how or whether to make permanent townwide changes in the town’s zoning laws to promote growth, with the first major workshop on the subject expected to take place next month.

Affordable housing projects in the months and years to come may not look like the large Szanton complex, officials said, but the town needs to do more to bring more affordable housing to Cape Elizabeth.

“Basically, we need to come up with an action plan to create more affordable housing,” said Town Planner Maureen O’Meara.

The Szanton proposal, if approved, will be part of the Ocean House Commons property on Ocean House Road. The proposal indicates roughly 80% of the units would be rented at below-market rates to households earning less than 60% of the area’s annual median income, which in Cape Elizabeth is $123,116, according to the U.S. Census. The remaining 20% would be leased at market rates, projected to be about $1,495 per month.

O’Meara said the town has needed more affordable housing for years, with discussions on the issue dating back to at least the 1990s. More recently, she said, the town’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan recommends a housing diversity study to explore ways to “create more affordable opportunities for seniors to downsize, and for young adults and young families to move to Cape Elizabeth.”

O’Meara said the Szanton proposal, if approved, will be the first project of its kind in 50 years.

“That’s a huge boost,” she said.

But the project points out problems, too. O’Meara said recent studies have shown that the town’s own ordinances present the largest barriers to more affordable housing. The Szanton project, for example, is too dense and too tall based on current rules, and the developers don’t want a commercial use on the first floor, as would be required now. All of these conditions, O’Meara said, require changes to the town’s ordinances in order for the project to move forward.

The council voted May 10 to send Szanton’s requests to the town’s ordinance committee. Despite Council Chairman James Garvin saying at the top of the meeting that the council would not be voting on any ordinance changes that evening, residents spoke out against the changes during the public comment period. Many comments indicated fears that the town was moving too far, too fast. One resident, Janine Cary, of Brentwood Road, said she was concerned about whether the Szanton project would meet the town’s affordable housing needs and encouraged officials to study the issue more closely to produce a more well-defined plan for encouraging affordable housing development.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge and change that we’re going to see, and that we’re seeing for the next few years within our community,” she said.

Gavin said this week that even if the changes requested by the Szanton project developers get approval, they will only affect a small area on and around the project itself and will not be applied townwide.

Regarding long-term, townwide changes, Garvin noted during the May 10 meeting that the council agreed to begin the very investigations residents were demanding. He said future workshops and meetings will cover in detail what needs to be done, and who will do the work, whether it’s the council, town staff, or, as one resident suggested, an ad hoc committee.

“This will be a multi-meeting, multi-workshop discussion,” Garvin said.

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