Petition could force vote to overthrow Cape Town council on affordable housing project


The Cape Elizabeth petitioners said on Wednesday they had gathered enough signatures to force a referendum to overturn zoning changes allowing for the construction of an affordable housing project in the downtown area.

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

The group opposes zoning changes approved by city council on October 5-2, 13, which would partially allow 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 city clerk for certification. Clerk Debra Lane said on Wednesday that she had yet to receive the petition.

According to the city’s charter, if residents write a petition and sign at least 10% of registered voters in Cape Elizabeth, a referendum must be held. With less than 10,000 citizens in the city, 1,125 signatures are enough.

Canceling a council vote is unusual, said city council chairman Jamie Garvin, who voted to approve the amendments.

“In my six years on the board, we’ve had a lot of different issues ahead of us,” Garvin said. “None of these things have ever resulted in a citizens’ initiative to try to overturn a council vote.”

Bobby Monks, a Cape Town resident for over 30 years and partner of the Szanton Society, also said the citizens’ initiative was a first for him.

“I have developed (many) housing units across the country,” he said, including other affordable housing projects. “I have never been confronted with a situation where there was a referendum after the city council approved the project.

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


The Save Our Center website lists residents’ concerns about the project, highlighting the city’s comprehensive 2019 plan, which calls for a “vibrant downtown” with an emphasis on commercial spaces.

“I actually share the goals of having a vibrant downtown,” Garvin said. “I think where we disagree is what helps.”

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

“They want to have a downtown area, and I think that’s really important,” Monks said. “But to attract retail, you need foot traffic, and that will provide a lot more foot traffic than there has been in other projects.”

One of the zoning changes eliminates the requirement for commercial space on the first floor if the development offers 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 large extent,” he said. “This means that the demand for brick and mortar retail space has plummeted. The price it can charge is much lower than it was before.

Other zoning changes adopted allow for the building height of 45 feet, a larger footprint and a reduced number of parking spaces required.

“It would be difficult for (other) projects to meet the requirements of the zoning changes,” Szanton said.


Save Our Center is also calling for the employment of different forms of affordable housing in Cape Elizabeth, such as collective housing, smaller housing and lease-to-own options, as opposed to large apartment buildings.

“This type of project is achievable because we’ve done it multiple times,” Szanton said, citing the 11 affordable housing projects the company has been involved in since 2002. “I don’t have a high degree of confidence. that this kind of housing can be delivered, although I know the kind we offer can be.

In an email, Szanton said affordable housing projects “have to be done on a large scale” because of the costs of buying 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 on 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 offered by Save Our Center.

“The majority of the board felt that these things can be worked on alongside each other,” he said. “There are a number of other things we can do besides this individual development. “

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

They also highlighted 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 past 50 years to create this type of scale and a significant addition to the housing stock that would be considered affordable and below market rate,” said Garvin.

Szanton and Garvin believe the city should help resolve the affordable housing crisis.

“Like any community, (Cape Elizabeth) should be prepared to do its part,” Szanton said.

Another major concern among opposition to the project is that of tax relief for the developer in the form of tax increase funding.

Szanton stressed that receiving the tax break, which he said would allow them to take out mortgages and build the project, would not be a burden on Cape Elizabeth taxpayers.

“This is just the additional tax revenue the project brings to the city,” he said. “It’s not like the city is giving up everything it already gets.”

The company proposes that 80% of the additional income “be returned to us over a 15-year period, or a lower percentage over a 30-year period.” Once that period was over, he said, 100% of tax revenue would go to the city.

Garvin said that an analysis he received shows the city will come out “at worst net-neutral, and in some analyzes net-positive,” and he is confident in that conclusion. The report is still under consideration by the city.

Monks and Szanton said that despite remaining opposition to the plan, they have heeded residents’ comments and concerns.

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

Szanton said some of those comments resulted in changes to the project. Originally, the project was to consist exclusively of one-bedroom apartments. Now it’s a 46-unit setup with three three-bedroom units and eight two-bedroom units. According to Szanton, only 10 of those units will go at market rate, while the remaining 36 will be affordable.

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

“It will be an interesting process that we will go through,” he said. “If it is a referendum, it depends on the people and we are ready for it.”

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