Get out the lawn chairs and pop the popcorn. Cape Elizabeth, the town the rest of Maine loves to hate, soon will define itself for the whole world to see.

At first glance, this week’s announcement by The Szanton Co. that it’s scuttling its proposed 46-unit affordable housing project in the heart of Cape Elizabeth’s town center marked the end of a long, painfully predictable brouhaha over who gets to boast one of the state’s pricier zip codes and who doesn’t.

Except it’s not over: The $13.5 million project may be dead, but the local referendum it spawned is still very much alive and won’t go away.

I’m sure Dr. Frankenstein had days like this.

Full disclosure: I lived in Cape Elizabeth in the 1980s and ’90s before fleeing inland to the wilds of Buxton. During my dozen or so years in what we simply called “Cape” – the “Elizabeth” being save for formal occasions – I came to learn a lot of things about the peninsula that has long stood for privilege.

I learned that good, hardworking people live there. People who, like me, didn’t have a ton of money and were more than happy to drive a few miles to the nearest beach rather than overlook one from our living rooms. People who didn’t put on airs, volunteered for this or that and generally lived happy, comfortable lives in a community that back then, while just a few miles from Portland, didn’t even have a stop light.


The word “insular” comes to mind.

But I also learned that something about Cape was … different. It was rarely if ever spoken, but living there you got the sense that you were one of the lucky ones, that what happened in neighboring South Portland stayed in South Portland, that the status quo in this hamlet by the seas was quite worth preserving, thank you very much.

Now, all of that appears to be changing. At least that’s the hope.

To its credit, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council voted 5-2 last month to approve a set of zoning changes allowing The Szanton Co. to build Dunham Court, the town’s first affordable housing project in half a century, on a vacant lot adjacent to the town office. To many, it was a long overdue acknowledgment that “Cape” is part of the larger world after all, and that it has some catching up to do when it comes to diversifying its mostly white, mostly well-off demographics.

Using common sense as our metric, the town center was the perfect location for the project – a short walk from the grocery store, the schools, the library, the Town Hall. Right in the middle of things, you might say.

Ah, but that therein lay the problem – at least for those who apparently don’t want people with lower incomes living right in the middle of things. The gavel had no sooner fallen on Dunham Court’s approval when a petition bearing 1,125 local signatures forced the referendum to repeal the council’s action.


It’s hard to blame The Szanton Co. for pulling out – nowhere in its complex funding plan was there money to wage an expensive and bitter political campaign. Noted CEO Nathan Szanton on Tuesday, “It began to feel like we were spending so much time, effort and money trying to force ourselves on a community that appears to not want us or is a long way from making up its mind on affordable housing.”

He’s right about the appearance of not being wanted. But the “making up its mind” part is now inevitable.

Wednesday evening, the Town Council began the process of scheduling the referendum on the zoning changes – they included adding 10 more feet of building height, halving the amount of land needed per unit, allowing residential rather than commercial units on the building’s first floor and a tax-increment financing package. In short, the kinds of adjustments other Maine communities successfully negotiate all the time.

Still, scheduling the vote, routine as it may sound, is no small matter. Some who spoke at Wednesday’s council meeting said they want it done as soon as February or March. Others noted that with The Szanton Co. project now off the table, there’s no reason to hold a costly special election when the matter can go to voters at regularly scheduled elections in June or November.

Translation: The quick-vote crowd, who opposed Dunham Court from the get-go, want a late-winter special election because they know they’re the only ones likely to show up. The wait-for-the-next election folks want as many Cape residents as possible to vote on the relaxed zoning regulations and thus make it easier for another developer to step in – a goal much more easily achieved on the traditional June or November election dates.

One way or the other, the council will set the date at its next meeting on Dec. 13. But Chairman Jamie Garvin, a supporter of the project who did not seek re-election last month, will no longer be on the council by then. So he took a moment before the end of Wednesday’s session to call out Dunham Court opponents who have spent much of the past year complaining that all this affordable housing stuff was moving too fast, that the town needed to slow down and study the issue a bit more.


“I find it ironic and quite frankly hypocritical that some of those same people – some of whom have stood up here tonight to offer comments – are now suggesting that we move as fast as is humanly possible,” Garvin said. “I just don’t understand how those opinions can turn so rapidly.”

I suspect Chairman Garvin understands it all too well. As he later noted, “I can assure you if we have a special election in town, you’ll hear from the fewest people in town and not the most. By holding it during a regularly scheduled election, you’re guaranteed to hear from the most citizens and not the fewest.”

The push for a larger turnout bodes well for Cape Elizabeth, which is also in the process of seeking proposals for a consultant to conduct a “housing diversity study” for the town between now and the end of March. It suggests that the town has reached an important inflection point where a majority of its citizens not only recognize their community’s innate exclusivity, but actually want to do something about it.

So go ahead, Cape, and schedule that vote. With or without Dunham Court, are you a community where all are truly welcome? Or are you still a place that’s, you know, special?

All of Maine will be watching.

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