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A center for Cape Elizabeth

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 9:07 am

CAPE ELIZABETH – On Monday, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council dusted off a 20-year-old plan that called for establishing a “physical and psychological focal point in the center” of town, creating a nine-person committee to “take a fresh look” at those prospects.

However, Town Manager Michael McGovern says that while the committee charge calls on the group to “articulate a vision for the town center” by year’s end, it does not necessarily follow that it will adopt the original goal, to encourage development of a traditional New England “village feeling” with “a coordinated design theme.”

“The meetings haven’t happened yet,” said McGovern. “There’s no preconceived notion as to what they going to produce.”

The original plan included a list of 37 recommendations for achieving a “pedestrian, inviting environment” with “a common meeting space, visual vitality and links to open spaces and schools, along with “mixed retail uses target to residents.”

In June 2011, Councilor Jessica Sullivan prepared a report showing that about a third of the original recommendations had been achieved to some degree. However, the largest part of that was a set of 1995 zoning changes, which established the “town center zone,” in hopes of facilitating the full list.

“I was given the job of getting an update on, from the ’93 plan, what happened,” said Sullivan. “The answer was, basically nothing, because there was no money.”

According to Town Planner Maureen O’Meara, some goals were partially completed, such as sidewalk construction and the start of downtown stormwater system.

“And, of course, we created the town center district, to create a whole new concept of a town center that we’re still using, which is completely different from the Business A district that we had here before, with huge setbacks from the street and the schools off in the residential district,” she said.

Sullivan and O’Meara agree other goals were never accomplished, such as creating a village green or establishing a slower speed limit and on-street parking on Route 77, from Tarbox Triangle to Fowler Road. Other items were simply abandoned along the way. Putting all utilities underground was deemed too expensive, while in 2008 the council rejected a redesign of the central intersection, where Shore and Scott Dyer roads meet at Route 77.

“It’s true there has not been a significant investment in the town center in a long time,” said O’Meara. “Jessica [Sullivan] has been a huge motivator in refocusing attention on the town center, because it is true that, after our initial investments, we really didn’t get much done.”

According to O’Meara, the biggest impact of the 1993 plan may have been the design standards written into the 1995 zoning changes, variations of which later migrated to other zoning districts throughout town.

“When we adopted the town center district, there were some concepts in there that were very new to Cape,” said O’Meara. “Not new, but new to Cape. The town got comfortable with them and then started exporting them to other districts. The Planning Board was like, hey, we want design standards in the neighborhood business district now, and we want to have this pedestrian-friendly concept in other areas of town.”

Fast-forward to 2013 and the council spent much of Monday’s meeting debating the makeup of the new committee. Eventually, it chose to stick to McGovern’s recommendation of two town councilors – Chairman James Walsh and new Councilor Jamie Wagner were selected – along with one member each from the Planning Board and the School Board, and five residents, to be selected by the appointments committee. At least one of the residents must live in the town center district, while at least one other must own a business there.

During debate, the council also stripped the committee of its recommended $10,000 stipend.

“The feeling was to have the committee decide what its budgetary needs are and then to come back to the full counci,” McGovern said.

The council also struck five words from McGovern’s proposal, which would have excluded municipal buildings from committee review of existing conditions and infrastructure.

That, Sullivan said, will allow the committee to work collaboratively with a new library planning committee, also created Monday, to which she was appointed, along with councilors Katherine Ray and Frank Governali.

Town officials have fretted over the future of library since November, when a $6 million reconstruction bond was defeated at the polls. Sullivan, who was liaison to the library trustees during the campaign, says stacking the five-member committee with her peers will “facilitate council leadership” on any library overhaul proposed in the future.

“That was really lacking before and I think that hurt the project,” she said, adding that “none of the problems with that building are going away. We need to deal with it. We are going to take a fresh look and see where we are now.

“We have this building that’s falling apart,” said Sullivan. “Voters didn’t like the cost of what we proposed, so, together, these two groups can go back to the drawing board, look at everything in town, all of our other buildings and ask, how to we envision the town center and how does the library pull into all of that?”

The library committee will include one member of the library trustees and one member of the school board. The latter was added, Sullivan said, in hopes of getting buy-in from the school department. Although much of the “11th-hour” opposition to the library bond was anonymous, there has been speculation among library friends that school opposition, possibly borne our of fear of competing over bond money for its own needs, factored heavily into the no vote.

As with the town center committee, the library planning committee was stripped of its $25,000 funding. Again, McGovern said, the defunding was not a vote against the committee, but rather an attempt to empower it to decide a funding need for itself.

The library committee is scheduled to report its findings for housing and supporting library services in Cape for the next 25 years by October.

Welcome to the discussion.