Opposition grows to proposed Cape Elizabeth town center changes

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CAPE ELIZABETH — In a sign of opposition to the Town Center Plan draft, more than 150 people have signed a petition protesting a proposed zoning amendment that would relax the town’s wetland regulations.

The proposed amendment would make it easier for developers to build on and around wetlands categorized as Resource Protection 2, but only in the town center and only in instances that would lead to “substantial public benefit.”

It was drafted by the ad hoc Town Center Planning Committee as part of an update of the 1993 Town Center Plan. The committee conceded it doesn’t know how many RP2 wetlands exist in the town center; Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said it would cost “big bucks” to find out.

“When I joined this committee, I thought we were going to do something that reflected town values – connectivity, schools, open space,” said Mary Townsend, a town center resident and former School Board chairwoman who resigned from the committee last year. “Never did I dream that this committee would try to pass an ordinance change that allows complete alteration of a wetland.”

The online petition was created this month by Shore Acres residents Sheila Mayberry and Connie Pacillo, under the name Cape Elizabeth Environmental Coalition. It is addressed to the town planner, town manager and Town Council, and discourages changes to the town’s wetland protection ordinances and alteration to wetlands in the town center.

“A great part of Cape Elizabeth’s appeal is the undeveloped spaces,” reads one online comment, attributed to Joe Gajda, of Cape Elizabeth, on the petition. “In no way do I support changes to encourage development in the town center.”

At press time there were comments from 20 other residents expressing similar sentiments.

The proposed amendment is linked to another recommendation in the new Town Center Plan draft.

A representative for Peter Haffenreffer, owner of the 4.5-acre lot between Town Hall and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, in February pitched the town center committee a concept plan for the lot that includes four commercial buildings and a one-acre village green, which would be deeded to the town. The committee has endorsed the concept plan, which would require removing hundreds of trees and filling a 3,500-square-foot RP2 wetland.

Public opposition to the concept plan has been strong. Assurances from the town center committee – that Haffenreffer could likely develop the land without an ordinance change and without offering the town a village green, and that a 1997 development proposal was less environmentally friendly – have done little to mollify growing resentment. 

“It concerns me that someone is offering their land to the town for development and that we may be changing our restrictions in the town center to accommodate the landowner,” Suzanne McGinn, a member of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust Advisory Council, said at last week’s town center meeting. “I think it sends the wrong message to the greater community that someone can come in and offer the town something ‘for free’ and we’ll make it easier for them.”

The wetland amendment and village green proposal are just the most contentious elements of the Town Center Plan draft. A recommendation to make the town center a tax increment finance district has also drawn the ire of residents who would like town center tax dollars to be available for the benefit of Cape Elizabeth’s schools, library and other municipal facilities.

Some residents believe the Town Center Planning Committee was a misguided effort from the start. They feel the comments at an October public forum, which were largely opposed to major development in the town center, were disregarded or misconstrued.

Others took issue with the makeup of the committee, which included several individuals with business interests in the town center – notably contractor/developer Skip Murray and Town Councilor Jamie Wagner, who owns a coffee shop on Ocean House Road.

And some residents saw the committee’s process as symptomatic of a larger rift between Town Hall and the citizenry, with the town pushing a pro-development agenda at odds with the will of the community.

“I’m concerned our town government is becoming hostile to the citizens they were elected and hired to represent,” former council Chairwoman Sara Lennon said. “Councilors and staff should be listening and creating policy based on majority opinion, not arguing with their constituents.”

The Town Council on June 9 will vote to receive the report. It will then likely workshop the plan, and send it the Planning Board and perhaps the Ordinance Committee for further review, before determining whether to enact it in part or in full, Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan said.

Last week, as the Town Center Planning Committee’s final meeting drew to a close, Chairwoman Stephanie Carver said it had been a “good process.”

She added, “I think we all signed up not realizing what we were getting into.”

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