Cape Elizabeth town center panel wrestles with dysfunction

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Center Planning Committee convened Monday to review comments made at its recent public forum, but conflict between committee members and confusion over the group’s direction dominated the meeting.

“I feel like we don’t have focus right now,” said Stephanie Carver, who expressed uncertainty about her charge as the committee chairwoman. She said the group was bogged down in discussions about commercial and residential development.

In response to public comments made Monday and at an Oct. 17 public forum, Carver said that the committee had no pro-development agenda. Issues including traffic, safety and green space also fall within its purview.

The committee noticed a contradiction in public comments made both at the forum and via a questionnaire on the town website: people have said they don’t want to see increased commercial development in the town center, but they’re open to more small businesses, like bakeries and art galleries.

Much of the discussion centered around public requests for green space in the town center, and the challenges of finding real estate and funding for such projects.

“Everyone wants a village green, but when the half-million-dollar bond goes to vote, people back off,” Lee Rutty said.

A vacant lot north of Town Hall at 316 Ocean House Road was mentioned as a place for the possible construction of a town green. The town sold that property to Paul Woods and his Isis Development group nearly 10 years ago, with the understanding that he would build a three-story, multi-use building with a restaurant, office space and apartments.

That hasn’t happened, but the committee expressed little confidence that Woods would consider selling the space back to the town.

The committee also fielded a suggestion to reduce the speed limit on Ocean House Road (Route 77). Members acknowledged it is difficult to compel the Maine Department of Transportation to change the speed limit on a state road, and prior attempts have failed, but it may be time to try again.

Tension came to a head late in the meeting when Councilor David Sherman accused School Board member Mary Townsend of encouraging friends to push an anti-development agenda for the town center during public comments at committee meetings. Skip Murray said he agreed with Sherman.

“You are operating behind the scenes to orchestrate this committee,” Sherman said.

Townsend, who lives in the town center, denied the charge and responded by suggesting that Sherman is not open to persuasion by public comments.

Meanwhile, Stephen Parkhurst said he discussed with Town Planner Maureen O’Meara the possibility of resigning from the committee and that Monday’s meeting could be his last.

Finally, questions were raised as to how much of a priority the town center really is for the Town Council in light of library renovations, road projects, facilities upkeep, the constant need for school support, and other issues facing Cape Elizabeth.

The committee ultimately set a Nov. 20 deadline for responses to its online survey and agreed to review the recommendations made in the original town center plan, created in 1993. The ad hoc group was created in February to update that plan.

“I think we have been taking a while to figure out what to do,” Sherman said after the meeting. “That’s OK. It’s a group of eight or 10 people. Sometimes these tasks just take time. I do think it’s a good group of citizens and I think there is some frustration that we haven’t accomplished more by now.

“We’re circling around on a lot of different issues, and I think it’s time for the committee to start moving the ball forward with more direction.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.