CAPE ELIZABETH — Nearly a dozen people this week objected to a concept plan for a village green next to Town Hall.
The concept plan was presented to the Town Center Planning Committee in February by Peter Haffenreffer, who owns the 4.5-acre lot that sits between Town Hall and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust office. It includes four commercial buildings and parking, and a one-acre village green facing Route 77. The green would be deeded to the town.
Residents at the committee’s Monday meeting criticized the plan’s environmental impact, which would include removing several trees and filling a 3,500-square-foot wetland.
“There may be some people who want a town green, but I think if they understood it meant clear-cutting all the trees and filling in a vernal pond teeming with aquatic life in order to get what appears to be more office park than town green, they’d say, ‘No, thank you,'” former Town Councilor Sara Lennon said. “People in Cape don’t want development; that’s why we moved here.”
The committee endorses the concept plan in its Town Center Plan draft.
It also recommends the creation of an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance that would make it easier to build on and around wetlands categorized as Resource Protection 2 – like the one on the lot south of Town Hall – although only in the town center and only in instances that would lead to substantial public benefit.
That drew the ire of residents, too.
“I’m quite saddened the town sees it fit to change an ordinance for the benefit of a commercial developer,” Pete Rand, of Shore Road, said. “The wetland ordinance is there for a purpose, and it’s a very good purpose. It shouldn’t be changed.”
Paul McGrath, of Shore Road, said it is unethical for the town to enter such an arrangement because of the benefits it would provide to the developer. By gifting the green area to the town, Haffenreffer would attract more business to his commercial properties and reduce his property tax rates, McGrath said.
Peter Curry, who represents the Planning Board on the committee, said that if the developer and town benefit proportionally, “I don’t see the ethical quandary. … I don’t think anyone’s looking to bulldoze Cape Elizabeth’s natural beauty.”
Several members of the public said the area around the Thomas Memorial Library would be more appropriate for a village green. Others said they doubted there is any strong desire among residents for such a space.
Committee members showed little interest in altering the plan. They pointed out the usefulness of a public-private partnership as a cost-saving measure, and noted that Haffenreffer can develop the land with or without donating green space to the town.
Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said the concept plan would likely be approved under the town’s current zoning ordinance, even without the proposed amendment.
O’Meara said she envisions a village green as a place for events like holiday caroling, Eagle Scout convocations, and Fourth of July parades.
The committee stressed that just because Haffenreffer’s village green concept plan is endorsed in the Town Center Plan, it isn’t a done deal. Ultimately, the Town Council will do with the plan what it sees fit, and all development is subject to Planning Board oversight.
“The council may get this a few months from now and say, ‘We don’t want to pursue this,'” Town Councilor David Sherman said. “It’s just a recommendation.”
The committee will review the Town Center Plan again on May 19 at what is expected to be its final meeting. The ad hoc committee was created last year and charged with updating a 1993 plan.
Project cost estimates are the only element of the plan that have yet to be added.
Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Carver noted that the village green is just one element of the updated plan, which also includes recommendations for storm-water improvements, expanded pathways from the town center to nearby neighborhoods, and funding strategies for infrastructure improvements.
But she also stated the importance, and the time-sensitive nature, of the proposed village green project.
“There is some sense of urgency,” Carver said. “We have a particular opportunity, and the town has a chance to get something from that development.”
Some Cape Elizabeth residents this week objected to a proposal to develop this 4.5-acre plot next to Town Hall into private commercial buildings and a one-acre, town-owned village green.