Cape Elizabeth council puts off review of ‘town center’ project amid public concerns over wetlands

Posted June 12, 2014, at 4:23 p.m.

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — The Town Council on Monday agreed to put off a review of the Town Center Plan until a September workshop, while residents continued to criticize the document, which calls for relaxing a wetland ordinance in order to facilitate development of the wooded lot next to Town Hall.

The council voted to formally receive the plan, which was crafted over the past year by the ad hoc Town Center Planning Committee. But the plan’s review won’t come for three months.

Councilors said their June 16 workshop already has a full slate, and they don’t typically hold workshops in July or August. Some members suggested a summer workshop could be in order, due to the strong — and negative — public response generated by the plan. But others countered that they need the extra time to review the issues.

The new Town Center Plan, an update of a 1993 document, contains a variety of goals, from building new sidewalks to standardizing the district’s visual aesthetic. But public discussion has focused largely on its recommendation to amend Cape Elizabeth’s wetland ordinance.

The amendment would allow for the “complete alteration” of certain wetlands, zoned as Resource Protection 2, in the town center if it were to result in a “substantial public benefit.”

The proposed amendment was driven by plans to develop the lot next to Town Hall. A representative for Peter Haffenreffer, who owns the property, in February presented to the committee a concept plan to build four commercial buildings, as well as a one-acre village green, which would be deeded to the town.

The plan would require the alteration of an RP2 wetland on the lot — an alteration that is not allowed under the town’s current wetland ordinance.

During a presentation at Monday’s meeting, Town Center Planning Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Carver said the town center district includes only 144 acres, or about 1 percent of Cape Elizabeth’s acreage. She noted that the creation of a village green was a goal of the 1993 Town Center Plan as well as the update.

Later, during a public comment period, a parade of residents objected to the plan and its proposed ordinance change, reiterating criticism made at Town Center Planning Committee meetings in recent months. Among the themes: “substantial public benefit” is a subjective concept; the committee’s makeup drove it in a pro-development direction; and Route 77 is a poor location for a town green.

“The one-acre lot would not be free,” Suzanne McGinn of Shore Road said. “It will cost our wetland restrictions, which were implemented to protect important habitats and wetlands.”

Sheila Mayberry of Trundy Road submitted to the town clerk a petition with 200 signatures opposing the amendment.

Others objected to the Town Center Plan’s recommendation to make the town center a tax increment financing district, which would require the town to funnel property taxes collected in the town center back into that district.

“TIFs are typically used for blighted, economically challenged areas, places like Detroit,” said Randi Bollenbach, of Belfield Road. “It benefits simply the development itself, it doesn’t benefit the town overall.”

After the first five residents who spoke during public comment all opposed elements of the Town Center Plan, Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan asked if there was anyone who might offer a different point of view.

She found one in Valerie Hall of Broad Cove Road, who said, “I would love to see a town green next to Town Hall. Since I moved here, I’ve thought we have a very unattractive town center, though it has improved greatly over the past 25 years.”

Hall added, “I think we should be careful how we discuss the issue. There’s been a lot of alarmist rhetoric. Every wet spot is not a vernal pool. And cutting down trees on one acre in the center of town is not deforestation.”

But after Hall, the last four residents who spoke opposed elements of the plan.

Following public comment, councilors engaged in little discussion of the Town Center Plan. They will take it up in September.

 

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