2014-06-20 / Front Page

City takes park out of equation

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLND — The back-and-forth over a new zoning plan for South Portland’s Thornton Heights neighborhood got a reprieve Monday when city councilors decided to simply pull one lot from the proposed district.

The property, a 2.33-acre “public park” at the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets, has been at the center of controversy for several months, based on city plans to lease it to Cafua Management, a Massachusetts-based developer of Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants.

The deal, originally hatched to lure Cafua from building on the site of the former St. John’s Catholic Church at 611 Main St., which it purchased in December for $731,025, was supported by area residents. Neighbors did not relish the idea of living next to a 24-hour drivethru. However, less than a quarter mile up the road, members of Congregation at Bet Ha’am, located on Westbrook Street next to the park, opposed the plan on similar grounds.

Bet Ha’am, which purchased the former Sawyer Elementary School in 2004, offered to buy the adjacent playground and ball field at the same time. However, city councilors declined, preferring instead to keep the property in city hands. City officials agreed only to grant the Jewish temple a 10-year right of first refusal, which expires in December, should the city decide to sell. Although retained as a park, the former Sawyer playground has seen little to no investment from the city over the past decade. It is often described – even by city councilors – as a vacant lot.

Amid debate over the fate of Sawyer Park – as good a name as any as it has none – came a zoning proposal ostensibly offered to resolve traffic and housing issues along Main Street. However, many residents, and even some city councilors, could not help but note how the zoning played into the hands of a possible lease to Cafua. Although Mayor Gerard Jalbert claimed at Monday’s meeting to have worked on the new zoning with planning department officials “for about a year,” Councilor Tom Blake, at a meeting in May, complained about the seeming suddenness of the proffered changes.

A Main Street Community Commercial zone running along Route 1 from Cornell Street to Southwell Avenue, which was approved by the Council on May 19, allows for a greater mix of retail and residential use. But, important to the St. John’s lot, bars, drive-thru restaurants and 24-hour businesses are also allowed.

Meanwhile, a proposed Thornton Heights Commercial zone, running from Sawyer Park to the Super 8 motel, and then down to Rigby Yard, was designed to alleviate housing issues. It would allow buildings six stories high, but imposes strict design standards. The proposal helped clear the way for Cafua development by making all of Sawyer Park, currently split down the middle by residential and limited business zones, a highly developable lot.

Blake has in the past publically opposed the THC zone because of its increased density allowances, saying greater congestion is not the way to solve crime problems related to transient residents at Main Street motels. However, on Monday Blake said he would support passage of the zone following a motion, made by Councilor Maxine Beecher, to remove Sawyer Park from its borders. Blake and Councilor Patti Smith have been the leading proponents of preserving the park space, with Councilor Michael Pock hop-scotching among voting blocks.

On May 5, Pock voted with the majority in favor of the first reading of the THC zone. However, on May 19, he sided with Blake and Smith to oppose it. Because five votes in favor are needed to enact a zoning change, Pock’s vote effectively killed the THC zone. Council rules prevent a proposal from being voted on again within one year of defeat, unless in a substantially altered form.

Then, on June 2, Pock moved to reconsider the decision, as was his right to do within one meeting of the original vote, having been on the prevailing side. With Jalbert and Blake absent, reconsideration passed 4-1. Smith opposed the measure, pointing to plans to rework the THC zone at a June 9 workshop.

However, City Manager Jim Gailey noted that, without reconsideration, the workshop session would only be able to debate substantial changes to the zone, taking off the table the possibility of passing it as originally proposed.

At the workshop, much debate was given to the possibility of lease and deed restrictions on Cafua, championed by St. John’s neighbors sympathetic to Bet Ha’am as a way to protect the synagogue’s interests. However, congregation members remained skeptical, fearing the award-winning temple they added to the old Sawyer school might get overshadowed by a fast food development.

Beecher, who also moved to reconsider front yard setback rules for the THC zone, said removing Sawyer Park from the zone was the best way to heal the divide that had grown over the issue.

“One of the things I feel strongly about is that the rest of the THC should go forward,” she said. “I’ve heard several ideas thrown out about what to do with that lot but this is really about community, and right now we need to do things that allow us to be less divisive.”

“I think this is the only way we are going to get the THC zone passed,” Councilor Linda Cohen agreed, citing a need to otherwise “rectify the area.”

“This has been one of the most contentious issues I have seen in South Portland in the past year,” Blake said. “What is funny is that in the beginning everyone had the best of intentions to make everything work. But there is a growing tide in the community that really wants to preserve these 2.33 acres. (Removing the lot from consideration) is the only way the council can move forward and save face.”

“This is basically what I wanted to do all along,” said Pock, explaining why he had moved to reconsider the initial defeat of the THC zone. “Unfortunately, the wheels of government grind slowly.”

That said, what Pock said he wanted all along resulted in a big enough change to the original zoning proposal that, according to City Attorney Sally Daggett, the process now needs to go back to square one. The proposal would have anyway, however, without the detour on reconsideration.

Restarting the administrative clock means a planning board review of the new THC zone at its July 8 meeting, following by a first reading before city council on Monday, July 21 and possible final passage on Aug. 4.

Representatives from Cafua did not respond to requests for comment on Monday’s council vote. Gailey has said there has been no direct contact between the company and city officials on the lease offer since May, and plans for the St. John property remain unknown.

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