Competing political signs at the intersection of Middle and Tuttle roads in Cumberland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

CUMBERLAND — The bright orange “Vote No” signs are hard to miss at intersections and in front of houses around Cumberland.

Along Drowne Road – a quiet street that runs past the public works garage and Little League fields before winding through a neighborhood – signs dot lawns, stick out of the ground near a bank of mailboxes and are taped in windows.

As the town prepares for a referendum next month on a proposed 107-unit affordable housing development on town-owned land off Drowne Road, opposition is mounting from residents concerned about the size of the project, its location and the impact it could have on taxes and schools.

“People feel really betrayed by this. There are people here who are already on the edge and can barely pay their taxes. Now the town wants to take on these new costs. It just feels so unfair,” said Katherine Pelletreau, who lives on Drowne Road and leads Citizens for Responsible Housing, a group that formed to oppose the proposal.

Town leaders say affordable housing is needed in Cumberland, a suburb north of Portland where the median household income is $144,000 (more than twice the state median) and median home sale prices have ranged from $680,000 to $800,000 over the past couple years (among the highest in the state). Supporters of the project say the lack of affordable housing creates economic barriers to who can live in town, prevents people from aging in place and stops others with connections to the community from moving back.

Cumberland is the latest community in greater Portland to wrestle with its role in a national affordable housing crisis that is felt acutely in Maine. Supply is low and demand is high, pushing rent prices to the point it has become unaffordable for nearly half of all Maine tenants. State housing officials estimate Maine is 20,000 to 25,000 units short of what is needed to end the affordable housing shortage.


Some southern Maine communities – including Portland, Westbrook and South Portland – have approved large affordable housing projects, but others have resisted. In late 2021, a developer scrapped an affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth after opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on zoning amendments needed to make construction possible.

“Every community’s got a role to play to resolve this issue,” said Mark Segrist, chairman of the Cumberland Town Council. “I hope folks don’t just focus on the concerns but realize we’re building a more vibrant and inclusive community and one that will have a long-term impact that’s positive.”

Early voting already has begun ahead of the March 5 referendum, when residents will consider the proposal from the nonprofit Westbrook Development Corporation to build three buildings with a total of 107 units – 36 of which would be reserved for seniors. The apartments would be available to households earning less than 60% of the area median income – between $49,740 and $70,980 depending on the number of people in the household.

The project, estimated at around $40 million, would primarily be funded through federal low income housing tax credits.

“We’re excited that Cumberland is actively pursuing this and realizing they have a role to play in addressing the housing crisis in Maine,” said Tyler Norod, development director for Westbrook Development Corporation.



Cumberland has been discussing the affordable housing issue for years.

The town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan update says the town should “make available quality affordable housing for people of all income levels.” Surveys of residents in 2014 and 2022 showed overwhelming support for affordable housing for both seniors and families, Segrist said.

In 2022, an Affordable Housing Task Force was formed to advise the town council on how to diversify the housing stock. The task force recommended the town add 150 mixed-age affordable housing units.

The council also hired a consulting company to do an independent analysis of the housing market to look at the demand for affordable housing. It found there is an immediate need for affordable rental housing.

In Cumberland, the average market-rate rent is $1,900 for a one-bedroom, $2,500 for a two-bedroom and $3,300 for a three-bedroom unit. Only 7% of people who live in town are renters.

“There’s often a misconception in more affluent suburbs that this housing isn’t for people in their community,” Norod said. “According to census data, about 22% of Cumberland residents earn in income brackets that would qualify for this housing.”


Gail Witherill, who moved to Cumberland in 1983, said she has watched as the community has become increasingly unaffordable. Concerned about affordability, she joined the task force because she thought “Cumberland should be part of the discussion and part of the solution.” The town relies on people who made moderate incomes in jobs in health care, schools and public service, and they should be able to live in the community, she said.

“Having affordable housing right here in Cumberland is a critical need for us,” she said. “There are people around us right in Cumberland who are struggling with housing costs. This is an option for them.”

Town Council Chairman Mark Segrist is among those in support of a 107-unit housing project that residents will decide at a March referendum vote. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Last fall, the town council issued a request for proposals for an affordable housing project on the land near town hall and received only one bid. Some developers said they were at capacity with other projects or were concerned about securing competitive funding in a more affluent community, but the council was confident in the bid from Westbrook Development Corporation, Segrist said.

Conceptual plans from the developer show three, three-story buildings with gabled roofs designed with dimensions similar to a New England farmhouse. Porches and community rooms were intentionally designed to foster inter-generational connections, Norod said. The complex would include a playground.

Apartments will likely range in size from around 600 square feet for a one-bedroom to 1,000 square feet for a three-bedroom, though plans could be adjusted during the planning board process if the project moves forward.

The council voted Dec. 11 to authorize the town manager to sign a memorandum of understanding with the developer. But it also decided to send the issue to voters in referendum to make sure voters’ voices were heard, Segrist said.


“It’s a big thing. Cumberland has traditionally been more of a rural community and hasn’t built as much as surrounding towns,” he said. “Whatever the voters come back with, the council will follow.”

Michael Perfetti, a former town councilor, questions why people are so opposed to bringing affordable housing to town. As the project is debated, he thinks of his 22-year-old daughter, who is studying to be a teacher. She would like to move back to Cumberland, but Perfetti said there are few options for someone making a starting salary of $45,000.

“We need housing where the people who are the backbone of our community can afford to live,” he said.


Concerns about tax increases and strain on municipal services and local schools have dominated public meetings about the proposal and upcoming referendum.

Town Manager Bill Shane told residents during a town meeting last month that the development would be a “self-contained community,” with road maintenance and trash removal handled by the developer. The project would add about $24,000 a year in municipal services, including police, fire and EMS, according to town officials.


That would result in an extra $1.50 per $100,000 in home valuation on property tax bills. For the owner of a $500,000 home, that would be about $7.50 per year.

The impact on education costs is harder to estimate, town officials say. Shane estimates 36 new students would be added to local schools – a number that would not require new teachers. If 23 or fewer school-age children move into the apartments, there will effectively be no additional costs, he said.

MSAD 51, the district that serves Cumberland and North Yarmouth, has been struggling with overcrowded schools for years. Mabel I. Wilson School, just down the street from Drowne Road, uses more than a dozen modular classrooms because its student body is over the building capacity.

Shirley Storey-King, who has been on the town council for 18 years, does not think the town should be involved in creating housing in this way. She said she supports the creation of affordable housing and points out that the council has supported workforce housing by changing zoning to all greater building density.

“The people in favor accuse the people opposed of being fearful,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think people are concerned if this is the right size for Cumberland.”

Storey-King said she sees people already in Cumberland struggling and worries what a tax increase would mean for them. While the median income is high, a report from a consultant last year showed that 38% of Cumberland households live on less than $100,000, she said. She has talked to seniors struggling to pay their taxes and younger families living paycheck to paycheck as they try to balance student loan payments and expensive childcare.


“This project just isn’t it. No one is against affordable housing,” she said. “The irony of this project is it could make Cumberland less affordable for people who are living here.”

Pelletreau, from Citizens for Responsible Housing, said people who live near the proposed building site are concerned about increased traffic through the neighborhood, which town officials say would be addressed with traffic studies during the planning process. Others opposed to the project question the scale of the buildings and its location in a town without public transportation, a grocery store and pharmacy, she said.

“The vast majority of Cumberland is single-family homes,” she said. “Our downtown is not like Westbrook, where the Westbrook Development Corporation is located.”


Denny Gallaudet, outside his Cumberland home, is opposed to a proposed affordable housing project near the town center. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The area chosen by the council for affordable housing is on land given to the town in 1891 by Elizabeth Ingraham Drowne with stipulations that the town not sell the land and must use it for educational purposes.

In 1957, the town decided to sell the farmhouse on the property and a judge ruled that because the property was not in a trust, the town did not have to follow the conditions in the will. In the decades since, the property was used in different ways. There has been a dump on the property. A small school was built that was later converted to senior housing. There is now a 75-acre town forest with two miles of trails on the property.


Drowne’s descendants, some current residents and the town’s Cumberland Lands and Conservation Commission have come out against the housing project.

The commission this month sent a report to the council recommending the land not be used for the project and that the remaining land gifted by Elizabeth Drowne be placed in a conservation trust. Using the land for this housing project is contrary to the intent of the donor, the commission said.

“The Drowne Road Project is even more insidious because it represents an ever-increasing incremental development of the gifted land inconsistent with the envisioned land usage at the time of donation, the terms of which the Town agreed to when it accepted the gift,” the commission wrote in its report.

Denny Gallaudet, a commission member and cousin of Elizabeth Drowne, said his primary objection to the project is its size and location. It also goes against the forest management plan for the area, he said.

“This is going to say tear this up and use 10 acres for parking lots and three large buildings,” he said. “It flies in the face of our own conservation objectives here and our own climate action plan.”

For sisters Barbara Johnson of Georgia and Carlene Giroud of Oregon, Elizabeth Drowne’s great-great-granddaughters, news about the housing proposal was disappointing. They visited Cumberland years ago to learn more about their family and visit the land given to the town. They love that it includes the town forest planted in the 1930s and now worry it could be lost to future development.

“It sounds like something the community can really appreciate and enjoy,” Johnson said. “That definitely would have been on the heart of our great-great-grandmother when she donated the land to the town of Cumberland.”

Giroud said she understands affordable housing is probably needed in the area, but thinks it should be built elsewhere. She would like to see the land donated by her family put into a conservation trust.

“What we want more than anything is for that property to be preserved and saved for future generations,” she said. “That absolute worst thing that could happen is for it to be developed.”

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