2014-05-23 / Front Page

A 4-3 vote kills zoning change

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLND — At South Portland’s Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish synagogue described last year by the Huffington Post as one of the “50 most stunning” temples in the world, there is a relic that is even more sacred to its 350 member-families.

The 13,000-square-foot, $6 million temple, designed by Toronto architectural firm Shim-Sutcliffe, with its water features, concave roofline and cavernous great room designed to catch the seasonal sun, is awe-inspiring by itself. But perhaps even more breathtaking is its torah scroll, rescued from a Czechoslovakian town wiped out by the Nazis, who murdered all of its inhabitants.

“When I joined Bet Ha’ am in 1998, I was so inspired by the scroll and its story that I knew I wanted to chant from it,” said Churchill Road resident Karen Silverman, at Monday’s city council meeting.

And so, in her 50s, Silverman studied to have her bat mitzvah, traditionally the coming-of-age ceremony at which 12-year-old girls become responsible for Jewish law, tradition and ethics and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. During the ceremony, she read from the Czech torah.

“I can’t imagine how that sacred moment in my life would have been impacted by the noise of a drive-thru,” Silverman said. “Over 1,000 people attend our congregation. None of us are excited about the idea of having a fast-food chain right outside our door.”

However, following Monday’s city council meeting, that possibility has been forestalled. The council voted 4-3 in favor of a zoning amendment that would have cleared the way for a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant on the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets, next to Bet Ha’ am, at what was once the Sawyer School playground. With at least five affirmative votes needed to pass any zoning change, the proposal goes back to the drawing board at a council workshop scheduled for June 9.

Meanwhile, the council elicited a round of applause by voting 7-0 to adopt a separate zoning change that will prevent a Dunkin’ Donuts from going up on the site of the former St. John’s church, just a quarter mile away on Main Street.

For a time, it seemed as if the push-pull over a new home for Dunkin’ Donuts, at 633 Main St., between Sawyer park and St. Johns, would set Bet Ha’am in conflict with residents. However, both sides quickly coalesced in their common cause against Dunkin’ Donuts. Bet Ha’am congregants spoke universally in favor of banning drive-thru windows from the area around the deconsecrated Catholic church, while residents sang praise for Bet Ha’am, urging the city council to protect it from being overshadowed by commercial development.

Like Silverman, many of the South Portland residents who packed Monday’s council meeting wore blue ribbons — a silent protest against city plans to lease Sawyer Park to Massachusetts-based Cafua Management Company. Cafua reportedly operates more than 300 Dunkin’ Donuts across New England, including the one at 633 Main St.

“The rights of passage which mark Jewish life are filled with solemnity and quiet, which would be all but ruined by a 24-hour drive thru outside our sanctuary,” said Rabbi Jared Saks, drawing a stark contrast between the fasting that occurs on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, and the potential drone of activity at an adjacent doughnut shop.

“To think about our refraining from food and drink, even water, while we listen to a fast-food microphone as we contemplate our relationship with God is unfathomable,” Saks said.

However, Monday’s council meeting was not about the Cafua lease deal. At least not officially.

What was on the agenda instead was a preparatory zoning change that would have taken Sawyer Park, which is currently split between residential and limited business zoning districts, and placed its entire 2.33 acres in a new Thornton Heights Commercial (THC) zone, extending from the park up Route 1 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 THC district would allow buildings six stories tall, with 80 percent lot coverage and up to 36 living units per acre, with design standards meant to manage conversion of area motel rooms into low-income housing. However, councilors promised that a deed restriction on the Sawyer lot would prevent Cafua from building to the maximum extent allowed, protecting Bet Ha’am from undue exposure.

Debate over the Dunkin’ development dates to last fall when Cafua bought the former St. John’s 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, leading to an immediate outcry from neighboring residents.

In response, the city council hatched a plan to lure Cafua away from the church by offering it Sawyer Park, which, councilors admitted, amounted to little more than a vacant lot, thanks to sparse investment by the city. Owned by South Portland since 1919, the corner lot was once the playground for Sawyer Elementary School. In 2005 Bet Ha’am bought the school, which it had leased since 1994 after space-surfing during its first decade of existence, and offered to buy the playground lot as well. Instead, the city council granted some parking easements and a right of first refusal on any sale until December 2014, but otherwise said it wanted to retain the lot as a public park.

In March, the council got its first look at a new zoning proposal, ostensibly tied to a three-year sewer project that will result in reconstruction of Main Street.

In addition to the THC zone, designed to combat deteriorating conditions along the city’s motel row, the proposal also included a new Main Street Community Commercial (MSCC) District. MSCC would run down both sides of Route 1 from the existing Dunkin’ Donuts to the Town and Country Credit Union. This zone will limit building height to three stories and 24 living units per acre, with design standards favoring an apartmentsover storefronts motif to complement wider sidewalks and narrow travel lanes. The MSCC also outlaws businesses such as pawn shops, payday loan companies and – to the great relief of those living near the former St. John’s church – drive-thru restaurants.

The council was quick to adopt the MSCC zone, which is backdated to the first workshop hearing of the proposal March 10. City Manager Jim Gailey said Tuesday that Cafua has not submitted a proposal for the St. John’s lot. While it can still tear down the former church, it is not effectively barred from building a Dunkin’ Donuts there, he said. City Attorney Sally Daggett has said Cafua’s purchase of the church property is not enough to allow it to sue the city over the zoning change, given the absence of a development plan for the site.

However, while the council quickly adopted the MSCC zone, it first spent nearly two hours on debate, including comment from resident Bet Ha’am members over the THC zone.

Mayor Jerry Jalbert favored the new zone, as did Councilors Maxine Beecher, Linda Cohen and Melissa Linscott. Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith were against the change, arguing instead to retain Sawyer Park. Blake also found fault with the new density figures — currently set at 10 living unit per acre in the area — saying, “I don’t think greater density is the solution to a neighborhood that’s in distress.”

The swing vote turned out to be Councilor Michael Pock, who had voted in favor of the THC zone at its first reading on May 9.

“When is a park a park?” he asked. “Bet Ha’am couldn’t buy it because we said it was a park, and now it can be sold because we say it’s not a park.”

Many residents at Monday’s meeting urged the council to pull Sawyer Park from the THC zone and append it to the abutting MSCC zone. Natalie West, a former California municipal attorney well-versed in South Portland’s codes, thanks to her more recent involvement in the city’s ongoing tar sands debate, said allowing any development of Sawyer Park “would be clearly inconsistent” with South Portland’s comprehensive plan.

Pock’s solution, deemed “brilliant” by Smith, was to simply pull Sawyer Park from inclusion in either zone. However, Gailey cautioned that would create an “island zone” from the half of Sawyer Park now in the limited business district, which also allows drive-thru windows.

Meanwhile, a fifth player emerged. Ginn Reality, which owns the land on which the current Dunkin’ Donuts sits, spoke for the first time publicly on the topic.

“I’m getting left out in the cold,” said Ginn Controller Ellen Fontaine. “We are going to be left with a small parcel that’s going to be pretty much worthless. It’s going to be pretty much abandoned because there’s nothing else we can do there.”

That said, the council agreed to start from scratch, to try and find a compromise that will satisfy the city, Ginn Real Estate, Cafua Management, Bet Ha’am and Thornton Heights residents.

“Nobody wants to have anybody else trampled in any way whatsoever,” Jalbert said.

But with all the disparate interests at play, any easy fix to may be hard to find.

“Right now, there is no right solution,” Cohen said.

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