Developers pull plug on Cape Elizabeth affordable housing project

·5 min read

Nov. 30—The developers behind a proposed affordable housing project that generated contentious debate in Cape Elizabeth announced Tuesday that they are pulling the plug on the project after residents opposed to the plan gathered enough signatures to force a town-wide vote.

Dunham Court would have been the first affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth in 50 years. The proposal to build a four-story building near town hall came at a time when affordable housing has become extremely scarce in Cape Elizabeth and throughout Greater Portland.

Supporters 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 project quickly drew pushback in town, with opponents of the $13.5 million project criticizing its location, size and financing.

The Szanton Co. of Portland said Tuesday that it was no longer viable to move forward with the project because of a public referendum that could have reversed the town council's approval of the zoning changes needed.

"It's clear that Cape Elizabeth hasn't decide whether it wants affordable housing in its town center," Nathan Szanton, CEO of The Szanton Co., said during a press conference outside of town hall.

Affordable housing proposal in town center divides Cape Elizabeth[/mtm-related-link

Save Our Center, the group leading opposition to the project, announced at the end of October that it submitted 1,125 signatures to the town clerk in support of a town referendum on the zoning changes. A date for the referendum has not been set, but Szanton estimated the process would take three to eight months and said it would require a political campaign "to protect the vote of the town council we received in October."

"We're feeling sad for certain, but we're feeling as though it's the right business decision," Szanton said in an interview after the announcement. "It began to feel like we were spending so much time, effort and money trying to force ourselves on a community that appears to not want us or is a long way from making up its mind on affordable housing."

The Szanton Co. of Portland wanted to build Dunham Court just off Ocean House Road (Route 77). The four-story building would have included 35 one-bedroom, eight two-bedroom and three three-bedroom apartments. The project was pitched as housing for workers, empty-nesters and others who can't otherwise afford to live in the affluent seaside town.

"Our vision has always been to bring people and vitality to the town center, in quality housing they can afford," Szanton said.

The Town Council voted 5-2 on Oct. 13 to approve the four zoning amendments that would have allowed Dunham Court to be built next door to the historic Town Hall and new Village Green.

The project needed those amendments because it would have been 10 feet taller than the 35-foot height limit for the town center district. The amendments also halved the amount of land needed per unit, more than doubled the building footprint limit, and released the developer from hosting commercial tenants on the first floor. The project also needed a tax increment financing arrangement with the town that would return a portion of property taxes to the developer over 30 years.

Tenants in Cape Elizabeth need a median annual income of $92,000 to lease a two-bedroom apartment at the median price of about $2,300 per month including utilities, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. Prospective homeowners need a yearly household income of $174,000 to buy a median-price home of $625,000.

Jamie Garvin, chairman of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council, said he is disappointed with the decision not to move forward with the project, though he understands the rationale of the developers. He said it is unlikely another developer would come forward with a project that is substantially different than Dunham Court.

"It's an unfortunate loss for the community of Cape Elizabeth," he said. "Affordable housing is something that is needed throughout the Greater Portland area and all of Maine. There are thousands of people in need of affordable and attainable housing. Every community in the area has a role to play in contributing to a solution to that problem."

Despite the demise of the Dunham Court project, the town will still hold the referendum as required by the town charter for all certified petitions, Garvin said. The town council will hold a public hearing Wednesday night about whether that vote should be held during a special election or during the town's next municipal election in June 2022. The council is scheduled to set the date for the referendum at its Dec. 13 meeting.

The Szanton Co. specializes in mixed-income rental housing financed through federal low-income housing tax credits administered by the Maine State Housing Authority. The company has built and now manages more than 550 apartments in 11 buildings in Portland, Biddeford, Lewiston, Auburn, Bath and Exeter, New Hampshire, and it has 292 units under development in projects in Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Bath, Portland and Lewiston.

During the approval process, The Szanton Co. heard from people who wanted to apply to live at Dunham Court, including employees of Cape Elizabeth schools and local businesses and emergency medical technicians, Szanton said.

Szanton said his company will continue to focus on its housing projects in other communities. On Tuesday afternoon, The Szanton Co. broke ground on a 55-unit apartment building near the town center in Old Orchard Beach.

"There are many other towns and cities in Maine that want our projects and are actively courting us. They all want affordable housing so workers can live close to where they work," Szanton said.

This story will be updated.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting