2014-05-02 / Front Page

City moves ahead with zone change

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Members of a South Portland synagogue are praying for preservation of a little-used city park next to their temple even as the city council moves ahead with a zoning change that could allow construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise on the property.

Nearly 70 people, many members of Congregation Bet Ha’am, attended a council workshop on the zoning amendments Monday, but, as Councilor Melissa Linscott noted, what drew the crowd is a convergence of “two separate issues.”

About a year ago, rumors began to circulate that St. John the Evangelist Church, located at 611 Main St., would be sold to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts following its final service Sept. 11 and subsequent deconsecration. In November, Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor at St. Maximillion Kolbe Parish in Scarborough, confirmed that a purchase and sale agreement had been signed in June. City councilors were aware of the development, later saying it had been the topic of a July 22 executive session. Official word finally broke Nov. 21, when representatives from Cafua Management Co., a Massachusettsbased developer of Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants, met with 10 abutting property owners of the church.

Plans were unveiled to tear down the church and replace it with Dunkin’ Donuts, even though the company ran another restaurant just up the road, at 633 Main St. According to Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings, Cafua also hoped to build a corporate office on the site from which to manage its Maine locations. No one from Cafua has ever retuned a call from local media. However, information online suggests the company runs more than 300 Dunkin’ Donut stores throughout New England, under a variety of corporate names.

Neighbors rallied to reject the development, and by the time the sale was finalized on Dec. 11, a proposal had been hatched to lease Cafua a 2.33-acre park owned by the city at the corner of Routes 1 and 9. Also abutting that lot are Congregation Bet Ha’am and the existing Dunkin’ Donuts.

Meanwhile, after more than a year of planning, the city announced plans in November to rebuild Route 1 through the same Thornton Heights’ neighborhood following a three-year sewer reconstruction project. Although the main purpose of the work is to divert stormwater from the sewer systems, which can cause effluent to overflow into the Fore River, city leaders wanted to use the opportunity, since the streets would be torn up anyway, to turn back the clock on Thornton Heights.

One of seven self-sufficient villages in South Portland when it was created in 1895, Thornton Heights, or Skunk Hill as it was then known, was transformed by the creation of the automobile. However, by mid-century, the creation of the interstate siphoned off traffic from the motels and gas stations that had sprung up along Route 1 to support the automobile economy. Realizing that the need for four traffic lanes was long passed, city planners unveiled plans to narrow Route 1, adding onstreet parking, wide sidewalks, and a landscaped median, in hopes of luring back the small shops and independent markets that had once been the lifeblood of the neighborhood.

With contracts awarded and work underway, city staffers last month introduced two new zoning districts designed to go along with the reimagined Route 1 corridor. Those changes included setting design standards for new buildings, while also mandating building setbacks, lot coverage, building heights and allowed business types.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, while both new zones are intended for a mix of commercial and residential use, the Main Street Community Commercial (MSCC) zone, which runs down both sides of Route 1 from the Dunkin’ Donuts east to Town and Country Credit Union, is designed to foster a “walkable neighborhood.” Meanwhile, the Thornton Heights Commercial (THC) zone, which runs from the Dunkin’ Donuts west to the Super 8 motel, is meant to be “auto(mobile) accommodating.”

However, what caught the attention of many in the audience and on the council is that all of the vacant lot the city hopes to lease to Cafua is in the Thornton Heights zone, which would allow buildings up to six stories tall, with up to 36 living units per acre.

Currently, that lot is split down the middle, with half in a Limited Business zone and half in the Residential-A zone. In an April 24 interview, Jennings, who has been the city’s chief negotiator in the project, said that zoning split is the only thing holding up a lease deal with Cafua.

“That’s where we’re hung up right now,” he said. “We’ve made substantial progress on an agreement to lease the property. Unfortunately, all discussions are on hold until such time as the council makes a determination on the zoning. With it split right though the middle, that has to be taken care of in order for anybody to do anything on that property.”

Although councilors generally supported the concepts behind the zoning change – at least after working on building heights, residential density and parking space allowances proposed by the planning department at earlier two March workshops — a few questioned the handling of the corner lot.

“I am concerned with how quickly this has progressed,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “Somehow, in a very short time, we’ve gotten two zone changes, which are very dramatic.”

“It seems like, rather than a planning decision, this has been a how-can-we-accommodate-a-Dunkin’- Donuts-developer decision,” said Martha Martenson, who lives next to St. John’s on Thirlmere Avenue, in what would be the MSCC zone.

Coach Road resident Lisa Munderback, as president of the Bet Ha’am board of trustees, said her congregation is “extremely concerned” about the proposed change, which would prevent Cafua from building on the St. Johns’ lot by outlawing drive-thru windows in the MSCC zone — According Attorney Sally Daggett said the city can make the change retroactive to the first March 10 workshop on the issue — while helping it along next to the Jewish temple.

However, Munderback and several others disputed a Monday article in a daily newspaper which they said unfairly portrayed a neighborhood in conflict.

“We completely understand and support their desire to have that section rezoned,” she said, referring to residents who live near St. John’s. “But we are most opposed to any construction that will put our grounds and building in new zoning.”

“I was dismayed by the way the subject was framed as the congregation versus the neighborhood,” agreed Pond Road resident Dara Saffer. “I don’t really think that’s true. I see us all as members of the same vibrant community. This is a false choice that either the congregation or the neighborhood needs to get thrown under the bus so this big corporation can get exactly what it wants.”

Still, Munderback said and many other congregation members bemoaned the fact that the city appeared to be going back on its rational from 2005, when Bet Ha’am bought the former Sawyer Elementary School for use as its temple, later expanded to include a synagogue lauded as “one of the most beautiful in the world.”

At that time, the council declined Bet Ha’am’s purchase offer, saying it to retain the lot as a city park. However, it did sell the congregation a deeded right of way to about a half-acre of the lot for overflow parking and a 30-foot buffer zone. It also granted a 10-year right of first refusal on any sale.

Gailey said that first look option ends in December, while no recorded document mentions a limit on leasing deals, or a guarantee that the lot would remain an open green space. He also claimed Cafua’s design plans include “at most” a two story building, rather than the six stories that would be allowed in the THC zone.

“I support the zoning change 100 percent,” said Victoria Morales, who lives across from St. John’s on Thirlmere Avenue. “This is the best thing that could happen to us.

“I understand the concern for wanting a green space, but nobody ever goes there,” she said, referring to the vacant lot next to Bet Ha’am. “It is not a space that inspires an appreciation of nature.”

Instead, Morales she and her neighbors would support the city-created restrictions on Cafua, either in the lease deal, or as part of any eventual property sale, that would prevent Cafua from blotting out the sun as seen from the Bet Ha’am temple.

“We want them to stay,” she said. “We appreciate that we have this beautiful building in out neighborhood.”

With a majority of the council expressing apprehension over the impact of the proposed zoning change on Congregation Bet Ha’am, and Councilors Blake and Patti Smith opposing development of any kind on the corner lot, the council decided to split the issues.

The proposed zoning districts will get a first reading at the council’s May 5 meeting, but will be voted on separately.

How things progress form that point remains to be seen. If the council cannot muster at least five votes for the THC zone, the Cafua deal could be dead. Meanwhile, according to Daggett, if Cafua is able to get a complete site plan before the planning board for “substantial review” before the council can adopt the MSCC zone, it could still place a Dunkin’ Donuts on the St. John’s lot.

“Cafua has really gotten this community over the barrel. It’s pitted one segment against the other in a truly unfair way,” said congregation member Sharon Newman, of Fort Road.

It was only hours before Monday’s meeting, she said, that Cafua contacted the congregation through Jennings to initiate negotiations.

“If we can work something out that is satisfactory to the congregation, and Cafua, and the city, maybe there’s a way of resolving things,” she said, “but I cant say standing here tonight how that’s going to turn out.”

Return to top