2015-04-10 / Front Page

Cape residents resist multi-unit housing

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Anyone who is hoping to build a large apartment building in Cape Elizabeth will have to wait. Following public outcry at an April 6 public hearing on a host of zoning changes, the town council agreed to kick the proposal back to workshop status.

The proposed changes were unanimously approved by the planning board March 23 after more than two years and, according to Town Planner Maureen O’Meara, “more than a dozen workshops.”

Among other things, the new rules would have lifted a cap of no more than five living units in any building in the town’s three residential zones. The proposal also would have halved the minimum lot size required for a multi-unit complex from 10 acres to 5 in the Residential A zone, and from 5 acres to 3 in the Residential C district. Building setback requirements also would have been reduced from 75 feet to the same 30 feet required of single-family homes. In addition, developers would have been granted so-called density bonuses of up to 30 percent, allowing more units to be packed into a smaller area than normally approved, along with provisions for reduced footprint requirements and increased height allowances, in return for preserving open space or agricultural land.

The plan had been for the council to forward the proposed changes on to its ordinance subcommittee, preparatory to a vote by the full council. However, instead of advancing the measure, the council took two steps back, referring it instead to a workshop session, yet to be scheduled.

“My issue was with the underlying concern about where we’re headed as a community with our open space, with our setbacks, with our height limitations,” Councilor Molly MacAuslan said. “My sense is that by going back to workshop, we would have the ability to have a better discussion about that … before sending it to [the] ordinance [committee].”

The changes spin out of Cape’s 2007 comprehensive plan, which encourages development of a more varied housing stock, particularly tagging as a “high priority” the need for multi-unit housing to accommodate an aging population that may soon begin to move en masse from single-family homes. That said, planning board Chairman Peter Curry stressed the proposal is merely an attempt to implement the final set of high priority changes recommended by the 2007 plan, with a focus on senior needs, not developer wallets.

“We did not have an agenda,” Curry said. “We did not go into this intending to expand or contract any particular zoning provision … or try to accommodate any particular development position.

“This is growth neutral,” Curry said. “We are not trying to populate Cape Elizabeth with tons and tons of multi- family housing.”

Even so, eight residents rose at Monday’s public hearing in hopes of forestalling that possibility.

The first of them, Tony Owens of Sea View Avenue, referred to a 2005 survey conducted as part of the research that went into the 2007 comprehensive plan.

“Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe through this [new] plan, 70 percent of Cape residents over 65, which includes me, were cited as being satisfied with the housing in Cape Elizabeth. Looking for senior housing was not a priority for them.”

“Either the planning board thinks they know better than the citizens of Cape Elizabeth or else we’ve changed our minds since then,” he said.

Owen’s theme was picked up by the other speakers, some of whom suggested the council should start by first repeating the 2005 survey.

“I think it’s your job now to ask, what do the citizens of Cape Elizabeth want?” said Cranbrook Drive resident Sara Lennon, a former town council chairman. While a vocal supporter of preserving Cape’s open spaces, Lennon questioned if encouraging cluster development was the best way to accomplish that goal.

“Is this open space that we gain worth risking what we will [lose] in our neighborhoods — the close-knit sense of it, the intimacy, the liveability and, frankly, the aesthetics of them?” she asked.

“Much of what the planning board has proposed is in keeping with the comprehensive plan. That said, as always, the devil is in the details,” Shore Road resident Christopher Straw said.

Among Straw’s concerns were two provisions he encouraged the council to strike from the document. One, called an “innovative” zero setback rule, would let the planning board waive setback requirements.

“There is no guidance and almost no oversight. It would just be left to the whim of the planning board,” Straw said.

A second rule would count small apartments as a fraction of a unit.

“If you tease out how the ordinance actually operates that could, in some instances, actually double the number of units allowed,” he said. “There’s a possibility that you could shoehorn in 13, 14, 15 units onto a 3-acre lot.”

Straw said he was also concerned because neither of the changes appeared on the summary memo provided to the council by the planning board.

“Please, please, please read these changes in detail, because they are not all reflected in the memo,” Straw said, addressing the council.

Although the decision to refer the zoning package back to workshop was unanimous, some councilors spoke against diverging from the town’s “usual process,” which would have included additional review and public hearings by the ordinance subcommittee.

“These issues have been studied for a long time. There is nothing that has jumped out of nowhere,” said Councilor Jessica Sullivan. “This has all been under constant scrutiny and study. There’s nothing that has come out of left field on any of this.”

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