2014-06-13 / Front Page

S. Portland does about face on zoning issue

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLND — In a surprise move, the South Portland City Council has reconsidered its May 19 decision to kill a zoning proposal that would have cleared the way for a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant on the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets, next to Bet Ha-am Jewish Temple.

The new Thornton Heights Commercial (THC) is nominally about righting a declining neighborhood along Main Street, where Maine Drug Enforcement Agents raided one of the areas many motels as recently as Monday. However, much of the debate has swirled around a vacant lot at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets.

In December, shortly after Massachusettsbased Cafua Management purchased the former St. John’s church at 611 Main St. and announced plans to replace it with a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts, city officials began to publicly debate the idea of luring the developer to the vacant 2.33-acre lot. However, that raised the hackles of Bet Ha’am members and put the city between them and residents living near the former church.

During that debate, the THC zone was hatched as a way to fix upper Main Street. The proposal includes new density measures allowing buildings six stories high and up to 36 living units per acre, but with strict design standards, particularly on motels seeking to rent out rooms as if they were apartments.

Although Councilor Tom Blake objected to the density rules, most of the resulting dialogue between city councilors and Bet Ha’am congregants revolved around the corner lot, placed in the THC zone, while another new zoning district in the area of St. John’s outlawed drive-thru windows and 24-hour restaurants.

Councilor Michael Pock voted in favor of the new THC zone at its first reading May 5, but sided with Blake and Councilor Patti Smith in voting against it at the final reading May 19. Because at least five yes votes are needed to adopt a zoning change, that appeared to kill the measure.

At that May 19 meeting, Pock seemed to side with Bet Ham’am members, who feared a Dunkin’ development next to them would overshadow their award-winning synagogue. Pock also pointed out that the city refused to sell the lot to Bet Ha’am in 2004, citing a desire to maintain the space as a public park.

That vote sent the THC zone to workshop, with City Attorney Sally Daggett noting that the ordinance language would have to be “substantially changed,” because council rules block a second vote on any defeated order for one year.

That rule, of course, goes out the window if the council simply votes to reconsider the failed vote, which it can do at its next regular meeting, if so moved by someone who was on the prevailing side.

At the June 2 Council meeting, Pock did just that, pulling his second about-face on the topic. His motion to reconsider seemed to throw Smith back on her heels, as she asked her fellow councilor to explain his apparent flip-flop. Pock, however, was unable to do so.

“I think I’ll refer to the city manager,” he said.

At that, City Manager Jim Gailey looked briefly as if Pock had lobbed him a live grenade, but nevertheless quickly screwed his eyes back into his head and handled the question with aplomb.

“I believe Councilor Pock would like to learn more about the deed restrictions and how the THC zone can be half the lot, with a split between open space and development options,” he said.

While deed restrictions on the lot had been raised previously, the other proposal Pock wanted to hear more about — that only half of the lot might be placed in the THC zone — appeared to be something Smith had not heard about at all. She also wondered aloud whether changing the zone border by half of one lot was a small enough change that reconsideration might be needed to consider that alone.

“After six years [on the council] this is a new one for me,” said Smith. “I don’t know how this supersedes the workshop we all agreed to. Other times when we didn’t pass something, we went to workshop.”

Gailey reiterated Daggett’s guidance that “a substantial change” had to be made to the THC zone proposal because of the failed May 19 vote. Reconsideration of that decision, he said, would allow the council to use the current THC language as a starting point for the June 9 workshop, potentially leading to only minor changes, if any at all, leading up to a new vote.

Only Smith voted against reconsideration, which passed 4-1, with Blake and Mayor Gerard Jalbert absent. That set up Monday’s workshop, at which several options were presented, without any apparent resolution.

“It’s all very much up in the air, and its all very interesting, to say the least,” said Jalbert, on Tuesday.

Several options for deed restrictions and lot splits were bandied about. However, Jalbert said, the THC zone will be voted on again June 16, essentially as it was originally presented. How that vote will go is anyone’s guess.

“People are unsure about what Mike Pock has for direction, or what he might do at the next vote,” said Jalbert. “It’s really unknown at this point what the end result might be. That corner lot at Westbrook and Main Street is very much up in the air.”

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