Cape Elizabeth petitioners announced Wednesday that they have gathered enough petition signatures to force a referendum to overturn zoning changes allowing an affordable housing project to be built in the town center.

The Save Our Center group made the announcement on its website. The group did not respond to multiple Forecaster requests this week for comment.

The group opposes the zoning amendments approved by the Town Council, 5-2, Oct. 13 that would, in part, permit the Szanton Company to build the 4-story, 46-unit Dunham Court project near town hall. They gathered 1,125 signatures in 11 days, according to their website, and have until Nov. 2 to file the petition with the town clerk for certification. Town Clerk Debra Lane said Wednesday she had not yet received the petition.

According to the town charter, if residents draft a petition and get at least 10% of registered voters in Cape Elizabeth to sign, a referendum must be held. With under 10,000 citizens in the town, the 1,125 signatures are enough.

Overturning a council vote is unusual, said Town Council Chairperson Jamie Garvin, who voted to approve the amendments.

“In my six years that I’ve been on the council, we’ve had a lot of different issues come before us,” Garvin said. “None of those things ever resulted in a citizen-generated initiative to try and overturn a vote of the council.”

Bobby Monks, a Cape resident of over 30 years and partner of the Szanton Company, also said the citizen initiative was a first for him.

“I’ve developed (many) units around the country,” he said, including other affordable housing projects. “I’ve never run into a situation where there was a referendum after the town council approved the project.”

Councilors Caitlin Jordan and Valerie Deveraux, who voted against the zoning amendments, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘A VIBRANT TOWN CENTER’

The Save Our Center’s website lists residents’ concerns about the project, pointing to the town’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for “a vibrant town center” with an emphasis on commercial spaces.

“I actually share the goals of having a vibrant town center,” said Garvin. “I think where we disagree is what contributes to that.”

Dunham Court would help make the comprehensive plan a reality, he and Monks said.

“They want to have a town center, and I think that’s really important,” Monks said. “But in order to attract retail, you need foot traffic, and this will provide considerably more foot traffic then there have been in other projects.”

One of the zoning amendments eliminates the requirement of commercial spaces on the first floor if the development is providing affordable housing or related support services.

Commercial space is not in great demand, said Nathan Szanton, president of the Szanton Company.

“E-commerce has kind of taken over the retail space to a great degree,” he said. “That means the demand for brick-and-mortar retail space has plummeted. The price that it can command is much lower than it used to be.”

Other zoning amendments passed permit the building’s height of 45 feet, a larger footprint and a reduced number of required parking spaces.

“It would be hard for (other) projects to fit the requirements of the zoning amendments,” Szanton said.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING OPTIONSĀ 

Save Our Center also calls for different forms of affordable housing to be employed in Cape Elizabeth, such as multi-unit homes, smaller homes, and rent-to-buy options, as opposed to large apartment buildings.

“This type of project is feasible because we’ve done it many times,” said Szanton, citing the 11 affordable housing projects the company has been involved in since 2002. “I don’t have a high degree of confidence that those kinds of housing can be delivered, while I do know that the kind we’re proposing can be.”

In an email, Szanton said affordable housing projects “have to be done at scale” due to the costs of purchasing the land, architects, engineers and legal fees.

“It’s frustrating to hear opponents who know very little about affordable housing production claim that projects should be able to be done at a much smaller scale,” he wrote to The Forecaster.

Garvin said the Dunham Court project can work in tandem with some of the other affordable housing options Save Our Center proposes.

“The majority of the council has felt that these things can be worked on in a parallel path to one another,” he said. “There are a number of other things we can do besides this one individual development.”

Monk, Szanton and Garvin said the type of affordable housing Dunham Court would offer could help residents who want to downsize remain in Cape Elizabeth.

They also emphasized the need for affordable housing in Cape Elizabeth, the state and the nation as a whole.

“This is certainly the first proposal of any kind in the last 50 years to create this kind of scale and significant addition to the housing stock that would be considered affordable and below market rate,” Garvin said.

Szanton and Garvin believe the town should contribute to the solution to the affordable housing crisis.

“Just like any community, (Cape Elizabeth) ought to be willing to do its part,” Szanton said.

Another major concern amongst the project’s opposition is that of a tax break for the developer in the form of tax increment financing.

Szanton emphasized that receiving the tax break, which he said would allow them to afford mortgages and build the project, would not place a burden on Cape Elizabeth taxpayers.

“It only involves the additional tax revenue that the project brings to the town,” he said. “It’s not like the town would be giving up anything that they’re already getting.”

The company is proposing that 80% of the additional revenue “be rebated to us for a period of 15 years, or a smaller percentage for a period of 30 years.” After that time period is up, he says, 100% of the tax revenue would go to the town.

Garvin said an analysis he has received shows the town will come out “at worst, net-neutral, and in some analyses, net-positive,” and he is confident in that finding. The report is still under town review.

Monks and Szanton said in spite of the remaining opposition to the plan, they have taken residents’ feedback and concerns into account.

“We spent a lot of time with the town … working with folks to go over this project with a fine-tooth comb in a lot of ways,” said Monks.

Szanton said some of that feedback resulted in changes to the project. Originally, the project was to consist of exclusively one-bedroom apartments. Now, it is a 46-unit configuration with three, three-bedroom and eight, two-bedroom units. Only 10 of those units will go for the market rate, while the remaining 36 will be affordable, according to Szanton.

If the amendments go to a referendum, Monks said he is ready for it.

“It will be an interesting process that we go through,” he said. “If it’s a referendum, then that’s up to the people and we’re prepared for that.”

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