2015-07-31 / Front Page

Council makes city park official

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – After nearly leasing a 2.33-acre open lot at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets to a developer of Dunkin’ Donuts last year, the South Portland City Council has moved to preserve the lot through the application of a permanent conservation easement.

The council hatched the lease plan soon after Massachusetts based Cafua Management purchased the former St. John’s Catholic Church at 611 Main St. and announced plans to tear down the building and replace it with a Dunkin’ Donuts. The council hoped to lure Cafua from that notion by offering the corner lot, largely unused since its days as a playground for the former Sawyer Elementary School. However, Congregation Bet Ha’am, which purchased the school and converted it to a Jewish synagogue, opposed that plan.

Although the council adopted zoning revisions that prevented construction of a 24-hour drive-thru restaurant at the St. John’s site, ongoing controversy caused it to back off from rezoning the old playground site, which for the past year has been used instead as a lay-down yard for construction crews working to replace storm drains and rebuild Main Street.

The new plan, proposed jointly by Bet Ha’am and South Portland Land Trust, would convert the site into a permanent green space, possibly with the addition of playground equipment.

“Bet Ha’am supports this easement since it will protect the property from development, as well as provide an option for community gardens, a children’s playground, and a tranquil green space for the western part of the city,” said Lisa Munderback, immediate past president of Bet Ha’am, at a July 13 council workshop on the topic. “We continue to be willing to donate funds as an endowment to help with the ongoing maintenance of this parcel.”

“If you look at an aerial view of that area, you see that it's needed,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “Some have said that is an intersection that’s too busy for a public park. I look at it from the opposite direction — the fact that it’s so busy is all the more reason for a park. I think it’s a perfect fit.”

South Portland currently has 20 lots on 12 different sites protected by deed restrictions or conservation easements. As with many of those sites, the South Portland Land Trust will act as grantor for what is to be called Sawyer Park, and will be largely responsible for its maintenance.

“It’s important that we integrate our city with the built environment and the unbuilt environment,” said Councilor Patti Smith. “Although it’s only a patch of grass right now, we can only imagine what it can be. Let’s make it a respite from the built environment in South Portland and create the balance I think we are striving for as a city.”

At its July 20 meeting, the city council voted unanimously 6-0, with Councilor Maxine Beecher absent, to support granting the easement.

“This protects one of the few open spaces in one of the city’s gateway neighborhoods and protects the legacy of this property as a public space for nearly 100 years,” said Kate Lewis, vice president of South Portland Land Trust.

Still, there have been questions.

“Why the hurry?” asked Augusta Street resident Marilyn Riley at the July 20 meeting, noting that use of the site as a lay-down yard will prevent park construction for “at least a year.” Riley said the city is in the process of forming an open space committee to develop a long-term plan for all city-owned land, and that Smith has proposed a moratorium on selling city property until that plan is in place.

Noting the conservation easement speaks to the park's use for “quiet recreation” and “uses not inconsistent with quiet enjoyment of neighboring property owners” — meaning Congregation Bet Ha’am — Riley suggested it would be better to ban use of the park when the synagogue is in use, rather than enforcing quiet 24/7.

“Kids just aren’t quiet,” she said. “Please don’t make this park usable to only a 55-plus population.”

Riley asked the council to table the easement and instead pass a decision on the property on to the new open space committee.

“Quiet enjoyment is a very common phrase in land conveyance,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “It does not necessarily have to do with decibel levels. It means having an undisturbed experience.”

“For me, this is a property the city has set aside due to circumstances that are not true of other properties. I would respectfully disagree that this is being rushed through,” Morgan said.

“As the grantor, the city has the right to set the rules for the park,” said City Manager Jim Gailey. “Because it is adjacent to a neighborhood as well as the congregation, this is not going to be the kind of park that you’re going to find a soccer field in. It’s not going to be the kind of park that will host organized sporting events. Will we have kids making kid’s noises on a playground? Absolutely.”

“This has been a park in many different forms for five generations,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “All we are doing is formalizing that.”

Blake also said the new open space group, when formed, will work on a list of 250 lots prepared by Gailey — plenty to do without Sawyer Park on its to-do list.

“It’s just clear to me the community wants this,” said Councilor Brad Fox. “We don’t want to postpone this. We want to allay their fears now and conserve this site.”

Return to top