2014-05-09 / Community

Dunkin’ divide nears endgame in South Portland

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Opponents of a 24- hour Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru proposed for the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets in South Portland have just two weeks to turn at least one city councilor against a zoning change that would enable the project.

At Monday’s city council meeting — a fourhour marathon session largely dominated by the zoning issue — Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith voted against the first reading of a proposal to create the Thornton Heights Commercial (THC) District. Because it takes five votes to pass an amendment to city zoning, one more vote against the proposal could kill the new district proposal when it comes up for a final reading at the Monday, May 19 council meeting.

The new THC zone would span from the 2.33-acre city park targeted for the Dunkin’ development to the Super 8 motel, and then down to the Rigby Yard rail terminal (in hopes a train station might be built there one day). The zone would allow buildings six stories tall, with 80 percent lot coverage and up to 36 living units per acre.

The idea is to continue to accommodate automobile traffic in that area and the businesses that depend on it, while spurring development that will offset problems related to drug use and other criminal activity tied to motel tenants in the area.

But not everyone was going for it.

“The answer to the troubled neighborhood is not to increase density and to increase height,” Blake said. “The answer to a troubled neighborhood is enforcement.”

Blake and Smith also sided with those troubled by the inclusion of the city park at the corner of Main and Westbrook into the new zone. Members of Congregation Bet Ha’am have risen up against city plans to lease the park to a Dunkin’ Donuts developer, in part because it would conflict with the mood of the internationally acclaimed synagogue built on the site of the former Sawyer School.

In 2005, when the Congregation bought the school, it also tried to buy the adjacent playground and ballfields. However, the council chose to retain that section of the lot as a city park.

Fast forward to December 2013, when Cafua Management Co., a Massachusettsbased developer of Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants, bought the former St. John’s Catholic Church at 611 Main St., which closed three months earlier for lack of members. Cafua announced plans to tear down the church and replace it with a 24-hour doughnut shop. In response to neighborhood outcry, the city council quickly hatched a plan to lure Cafua away from the church by offering it the former school fields a quarter mile up Route 1, which, far from a flourishing city park, had languished as a vacant lot.

The only trouble was that the ersatz park sat in two zones — half in residential, half in “limited business.” This, Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said, limited Cafua’s options and threw a wrench into negotiations. Also complicating the issue, while Bet Ha’am failed to buy the park, it did obtain parking and buffer easements, as well as a 10-year right-of-first-refusal on any sale, which does not expire until December.

Meanwhile, as it moved to creating the THC zone, the city planning office also developed a proposal for a new Main Street Community Commercial (MSCC) District, to run down both sides of Route 1 from the existing Dunkin’ Donuts at 633 Main St. — also owned by Cafua and adjacent to the proposed park location — to Town and Country Credit Union. The zone will limit building height to three stories and 24 living units per acre and is designed to complement reconstruction of Main Street. The Main Street project is part of a threeyear sewer project that will narrow the street and widen sidewalks; the MSCC zone is designed to facilitate walking and biking, with design standards favoring an apartments-over-storefronts motif.

The big change, however, is that the MSCC zone would prohibit pawn shops, 24- hour businesses and drive-thru windows. The latter restriction would hobble Cafua’s ability to build on the St. John’s property, given that the zoning change would be retroactive to March 10, the first city council workshop on the topic.

On Monday, the city council unanimously approved the first reading of the MSCC zone. However, while the council conducted separate votes on the two proposed zones, Thirlmere Avenue resident Victoria Morales, based on her experience as a municipal attorney, cautioned the council, saying if the MSCC zone prevails, while the THC zone fails, Cafua could have standing to sue the city.

“I am scared about not passing both of these,” she said, explaining that, while never successfully pressed, Maine law does allow a developer to file suit if a municipality changes rules to prevent a project after it has made a “significant investment.”

However, City Attorney Sally Daggett said Cafua, which has yet to file a formal development plan with the city, would had to have begun “work in the field” beyond merely buying the church building.

“I don’t think the facts that exist here would support a claim of having equitably acquired a vested right,” she said.

Meanwhile, Blake, Smith and numerous audience members stumped for retention of the city park, saying it has gone unused only for lack of investment by the city. However, others on the council supported the balance of the THC zone, laying their trust in a possible deed restriction that would protect Bet Ha’am’s synagogue from being overshadowed by a six-story building.

“Would we get everything we want in a deed restriction? I don’t know that,” said Fort Road resident Sharon Newman, a member of Congregation Bet Ha’am, who prophesized the “really horrific effects” of Dunkin’ development next to the synagogue.

While Newman said she could not understand why the two proposed zones need to be linked, Thirlmere Avenue resident Taylor Hamlin said it was too late to divorce the two districts.

“A postponement of this decision will almost certainly result in a application by Cafua to demolish the church and build in the St. John lot,” she said. “We would be foolish to believe they want the corner lot so badly that they are prepared to wait indefinitely.”

Whatever happens, it is likely to pop before the next council meeting on Monday, May 19, at least according to Mayor Jerry Jalbert.

“Two weeks gives an opportunity for many things to happen,” he said, referencing ongoing talks behind the scenes. “There is some possibility of some compromise happening there among all the parties involved.”

Representatives from Cafua did not return requests for comment.

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