Dunham Court

The Szanton Co.’s Dunham Court will be built next to Cape Elizabeth’s Town Hall and overlook the new Village Green along Route 77. Contributed / The Szanton Company

The Cape Elizabeth Town Council approved zoning amendments Wednesday that will allow the construction of a controversial affordable apartment building in the town center.

Councilors voted 5-2 in favor of the changes, with Councilors Valerie J. Deveraux and Caitlin Jordan casting the opposing votes. Councilors in favor said the 46-unit Dunham Court project will benefit the town, where no affordable housing developments have been built in over 50 years.

“I really am believing that people who are in support of this project see Cape Elizabeth in a broader community,” Councilor Penelope Jordan said. “We hear from businesses that can’t hire people because there is no housing.”

Rising housing costs in Cape Elizabeth over the last decade have had a noticeable impact on the town, where the median home price is $625,000, Town Planner Maureen O’Meara previously told the Portland Press Herald.  The number of volunteer firefighters has fallen from about 60 to 30, for example, and student enrollment has dropped from about 1,800 to 1,600, she said.

“There are far fewer people who live here and work here, and it’s not good for the community,” O’Meara said.

The approved amendments, which were crucial for the size of the project, allows a building located at least 200 feet from a road to have a maximum height of 45 feet, up from the previously allowed 35 feet, and to have affordable housing or related support services on the first floor. It reduces off-street parking for housing developments where at least 70% of the units in the building are affordable or for low-income families.

The Szanton Company’s $13.5 million proposal for the 4-story apartment building next to Town Hall overlooking the new Village Green has been a source of divide among Cape Elizabeth residents this summer.

While most residents at the meeting agreed the town needs affordable housing, some said Dunham Court is an ill fit for the town center because its size will make it a focal point and because the project isn’t in line with the vision the town outlined in its comprehensive plan. Deveraux sided with those residents and Councilor Caitlin Jordan has said previously she opposed the plan because the town center was zoned for businesses, not residences, and regardless, the building was too big for the town center.

“This project completely violates the town center plan,” said resident Jessica Sullivan, who said she would support other projects like businesses or mixed-use projects.

The Town Center 2014 Plan called for a “vibrant town center that includes mixed retail uses for residents and visitors.” The plan also called for a common meeting place, noted visual appeal was vital and said the town center should be a safe place for pedestrians and cyclists.

I think this entire subdivision is completely in the spirit of the mixed-use vision that is laid out in the town center plan and validated further in the comprehensive plan,” Council Chairperson James Garvin said.

Other residents agreed, with John Holt noting that the comprehensive plan is not zoning and is a suggestion.

“It’s been clear we want a vibrant town center, your zoning is supposed to help you get that, not prevent that, and you often need to make amendments to zoning,” Holt said. “The changes are minor.”

Residents in favor of Dunham Court disagreed with a concern raised at the meeting that the apartment units will still be too pricey to be affordable.

“If we keep talking and not doing anything we will be in the same position and you will lose people that want to stay here or come,” resident Melanie Thomas said. “To say people can’t (afford to live) there is not true, a lot of people can.”

Thirty-seven apartments, including three three-bedroom units, would be reserved for households below 60% of the area median income, which is $42,000 for one person, $48,000 for two people and $59,940 for three people. Nine apartments would be leased at market rate.

The quasi-state agency MaineHousing defines “affordability” as housing that doesn’t cost more than 30% of household income, government relations director Erik Jorgensen previously told The Forecaster, and MaineHousing considers fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Greater Portland to be $1,592.

Conversations and votes about funding were deferred until a November meeting.

This story was updated Oct. 18 to correct the total number of units proposed and the breakdown between those that would be offered at the affordable rate and those that would be offered at the market rate. 

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