The Cape Elizabeth Town Council officially recognized Monday a petition calling for a referendum to overrule the council’s recent zoning changes that would allow a controversial affordable housing project to be built.

The council has scheduled a public hearing on the petition for Dec. 1 and on Dec. 13 will decide when the referendum will go to town voters, likely in June 2022.

Those who signed the Save Our Center petition seek to overturn the council on zoning amendments approved last month that pave the way for the Dunham Court project, a $13.5 million, 4-story, 46-unit apartment building, to be built next to Town Hall and the new Village Green. The town clerk certified 1,155 signatures on the petition.

“I drafted the petition and enlisted a group of 25 volunteers to circulate it,” said Cynthia Dill, a Portland lawyer, politician and a Cape Elizabeth resident since 2003. Volunteers included former Cumberland Country District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, a 19-year Cape resident, and Councilor-elect Tim Reiniger, who faced a vote recount this week, after the Forecaster’s deadline.

“I initially tried to convince the Town Council, through advocacy, that approving these housing amendments was a grave mistake,”  Dill said in an interview this week. But many members of the council “signaled at every step of the way that they were going to just plow this thing right through,” she said.

Town Council Chairperson Jamie Garvin has consistently said that the council and the developers of the project, Szanton Co., have worked diligently with residents from the start by holding multiple hearings and workshops.

A major argument against the zoning amendments has been the town’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan, which provides a vision for a vibrant town center largely made up of commercial and retail uses.

“I was the chair for the Comprehensive Plan Committee,” said resident Timothy Thompson, who worked on the petition drive. “The Comprehensive Plan never talked about a plan that would require the town to go in and override decades of ordinances that had carefully been put in place.”

Dill said the Dunham Court project is “completely inconsistent” with the plan.

Those in favor of the project argue that the town center is an ideal location for it and that a populated town center is needed to attract retail businesses.

Reiniger worries that the apartments project could dictate other town center developments.

“The zoning changes … are not limited to just Dunham Court lots,” he said. “They’re applied to the entire town center, which would mean that there could be many apartment buildings built.”

Opponents of the project in general claim its affordable housing does not apply to the town’s workforce.

Of the 46 units, 37 would be reserved for households below 60% of the median income in town, which is $42,000 for an individual, $48,000 for two people and $54,000 for three.

Dill, noting the median income in Cape Elizabeth is upwards of $120,000, said “such low income restrictions” are exclusive.

“We have these great teachers, these great firefighters, police officers; they can’t live in town and this won’t solve their problem,” she said.

The town is the biggest employer in Cape Elizabeth, but not the only one.

Garvin told the Forecaster this week that there are plenty of occupations in Cape Elizabeth that would be eligible for the affordable housing Dunham Court would provide.

“We have hospitality businesses in town, healthcare providers, people that are in-home workers, all of which would meet the income threshold for the affordable housing units,” he said.

The Save Our Center group still wants affordable housing in Cape Elizabeth, they say, but want it to come in a different form.

“The affordable housing that is described in the Comprehensive Plan is about creating homes in neighborhoods on in-fill lots,” Dill said. “It’s about creating opportunities to get into the housing market.”

Garvin told the Forecaster last month that he and other council members are open to having multiple forms of affordable housing in town, including the Dunham Court project and other suggestions made by the project’s opposition.

The tax break the project could receive in the form of tax increment financing is also of concern to some residents.

“The whole design of it is to maximize the profit of the developers and not really address what the town of Cape Elizabeth needs,” Stephanie Anderson said.

Dill agrees, saying that it “will line the pockets of a private developer” and that “it’s not at all even attempting to meet the needs of Cape Elizabeth’s housing situation.”

Garvin emphasized that the developers will still be paying taxes.

“The developers are looking for a portion of the taxes to be returned to them over a 15-year period,” he said. “Even during the period of the TIF, they’d be paying some taxes. Beyond the period of the TIF, they’d be paying full taxes.”

The council has indefinitely tabled a vote on the tax increment financing for the project.

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