SOUTH PORTLAND — A Cape Elizabeth resident is hoping to bring group housing for the disabled to Knightville.
The Planning Board next month will take up a proposed zone change for 20 E St., an old grange hall and former ceramics studio near the Cottage Road-Ocean Street rotary.
The housing project is being proposed by Paul Bulger, an attorney from Cape Elizabeth who has an autistic daughter, and several others in the area who are parents of disabled children.
Bulger said the proposed housing, modeled after a project in Cambridge, Mass., would allow people with disabilities to live as independently as possible, while offering them in-house support services.
Housing units would occupy all three floors of 20 E St. The first floor would mostly contain common space, like the living room, library, kitchen, dining hall and one or two bedrooms. The second floor would contain eight bedrooms and four bathrooms, while the top floor would be renovated into two apartments for employees, who would staff the facility 24 hours a day.
Bulger said Knightville is an ideal location for the project, because it is close to services, including public transportation, City Hall, the post office and several grocery and retail stores. Nearby services are essential to the project, he said, because most of the tenants would not drive cars.
Leah Muliero, president of the Knightville Mill Creek Neighborhood Association, said the group supports the project. However, the association is concerned about what might become of the building if the owner decides to move the project.
“I think it’s a superb use for that building,” Muliero said, noting that the proposal is not expected to increase vehicle traffic in the residential area. “What if that use should should change and become a rooming or boarding house?”
The E Street property is also in two zoning districts: village commercial and residential. Muliero said the group was initially concerned about the commercial district creeping further into the neighborhood, but Community Planner Steve Puleo said that there is not enough of the property in the commercial zone to rezone the entire parcel.
A zone is not currently needed for a project like this. The Federal Fair Housing Act Amendment of 1988 allows up to eight
residents to live under one roof and still be considered a single
family, which means Bulger could legally put the complex in any residential neighborhood without special approval.
However, Bulger said he is seeking a zoning change to allow the two additional two units, which are needed to make the project economically viable. Residents would pay between $130,000 and $160,000 to buy their rooms, plus an annual fee to pay for maintenance and upkeep, like a condominium association.
Bulger said that similar projects have been undertaken in other parts of the country and there have been no problems. Residents, who would own their room like one would a condominium, typically stay in their apartment for their entire lives, often forming close bonds with others in the house, essentially giving them a family in a home away from home.
“It (would) be nice to know that my daughter is going to have an independent life and a community that she treats like family and that will be overseen by a professional management company,” he said.
Bulger described his 20-year-old daughter, who works at Marshall’s near the Maine Mall, as a highly functional individual with autism. He said his daughter is welcome to stay in his home as long as he and his wife are able to care for her, but he is concerned about what will happen to her when they are gone.
“My daughter could live at home for the next 15 to 20 years,” he said. “But ultimately she’s going to have to live in the community. She’ll be better served the sooner we do that.”
Bulger said the costs are “astronomical” for a single family to pay for services for disabled children, whose care is mandated by state law until they graduate high school. He said the proposed housing model will spread those costs out among nine or 10 families.
“Not only would she be getting the housing, but also the services in one package,” he said.
The city and waterfront business district may also have something to gain. Bulger said the project would be fully taxable and that local businesses could look forward to a consistent customer base for their goods and services.
Also, Bulger said since many of the residents would probably have jobs, less financial assistance would be needed.
Muliero said the neighborhood itself would benefit simply from having more residents.
“We love it when new residents move into the area,” she said. “It brings new vitality to the neighborhood and helps the shops around town. It’s disconcerting to see a dark, empty building at night.”
The Planning Board held a workshop on the project earlier this month. The board will review the proposed zone change in January and issue a recommendation to the City Council. If approved, the project would have to go back to the Planning Board for site plan approval.