Cape Elizabeth finally hires consultant for housing study

CAPE ELIZABETH – Town officials have finally hired a consultant to conduct a housing diversity study and they are setting up a public review process meant to ensure transparency in the wake of last year’s affordable housing controversy.

A developer who planned to build an affordable housing complex in the town center pulled out in November in the face of determined opposition. The study is meant to identify roadblocks and opportunities in the effort to create affordable housing in town.

The Town Council this month authorized a contract with Camoin Associates of Saratoga Springs, New York, selecting the firm from seven applicants who ultimately sought the project after no one responded to an initial request for proposals issued in November.

Faced with a tight job market and community sentiment expressed against local consultants who might have applied under different circumstances, the town issued a new RFP in February that increased funding for the study from $ 20,000 to $ 50,000 and moved the completion deadline from May 15 to Aug. 30.

Camoin Associates will do the job for 45,000. Its staff has done similar studies in Carrabassett Valley, Kennebunkport, Mount Desert Island, Deer Isle and Stonington, and for the Scarborough Downs redevelopment project. The firm also has several members with homes in or other ties to Maine.

The council’s ordinance committee recommended Camoin after interviewing five of the applicants who had experience with housing studies.

“All of the applicants had clearly done their homework,” said Town Planner Maureen O’Meara. “Camoin Associates had a great proposal and they have a lot of experience.”

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In November, The Szanton Co. of Portland suddenly dropped its proposal to build a 46-unit apartment complex next door to Town Hall and the new Village Green. Opponents had fought the project for months, then gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on recent council-approved zoning amendments that had made it possible to build the complex.

The Szanton Co. wanted to build Dunham Court next to the historic Town Hall and new Village Green in Cape Elizabeth. The developer dropped the $ 13.5 million project last year in the face of ongoing opposition. Architect’s rendering courtesy of The Szanton Co.

The council has scheduled the referendum on the zoning changes for Nov. 8, during the state’s next general election, to determine whether the amendments should remain in place and retain the potential to affect future development in the town center. Szanton sought the amendments so the project could exceed height and density limits and not be required to have commercial tenants on the first floor.

Dunham Court would have been the first affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth in 50 years, at a time when affordable housing has become extremely scarce in Cape Elizabeth, throughout Greater Portland and beyond.

In 2021, MaineHousing considered fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Greater Portland to be 1,592. The quasi-state agency defines “affordability” as housing that does not cost more than 30 percent of household income.

In Cape Elizabeth, tenants needed a yearly household income of $ 92,000 to lease a median-priced, two-bedroom apartment, which runs about $ 2,300 per month, including utilities, according to MaineHousing. Prospective homeowners needed a yearly household income of $ 174,000 to buy a median-priced home of 625,000.

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Supporters of Dunham Court thought the town center was exactly where an affordable housing project should be, within walking distance of the local supermarket, pharmacy, public schools, community center, police and fire station, and Thomas Memorial Library. But the $ 13.5 million project drew significant pushback from opponents who criticized its location, size, subsidized financing through MaineHousing and request for a tax break from the town.

Some opponents of the Szanton proposal believed it violated the town’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan, which called for a housing diversity study.

According to the RFP, “the study should evaluate current housing costs, needs, impacts on services and other relevant elements in the town and recommend actions to create more affordable and attainable housing opportunities.”

The consultant will be expected to develop a list of options for land use regulations that would align town development requirements with affordable housing targets. The report must show housing as it exists in town, types of housing needed and current barriers to housing development, including zoning, land availability and environmental conditions.

“Options should be wide ranging and potentially include affordable housing creation methods not currently in use in the town,” the RFP states. “Options should align with available affordable housing funding programs, reflecting the limited amount of land available for development and ready availability of infrastructure.”

The consultant will also be expected to develop a list of other options to produce affordable housing, including the use of municipal land, town purchase of land and transfer payments to other communities that create affordable units.

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“We want to see an array of solutions,” said Councilor Penny Jordan, chair of the council’s ordinance committee. “I think there’s an agreement that we need housing diversity in our community. We know there are housing challenges in our state and across the country. Some people didn’t see (the Szanton proposal) as the right solution. “

The study will be produced and presented to the council in stages, with a final report due Aug. 30. The study will be featured prominently on the town website and a citizens committee will be appointed to help review the final report and recommend next steps.

“Everything will be very public and transparent,” O’Meara said.


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