2016-05-27 / Front Page

Non-standard lots to get further review

By Wm. Duke
Harrington Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council has put off a workshop session on so-called in-fill development, or construction allowed on lots smaller than the minimum 10,000-square-foot size normally allowed.

Since the 1990s, the city has allowed construction on existing lots as small as 5,000 square feet and, in 2007, allowed homes to be built on lots even smaller than that, with planning board approval. Since then, 22 of 386 homes built on so-called substandard lots have gone up on properties of less than 5,000 square feet.

More than a year ago, Mayor

Tom Blake and Councilor Maxine Beecher requested a review of such development. That workshop was scheduled for Monday, May 23, but was postponed for a month or so.

Blake said at May 23 meeting that, over the previous weekend, Councilor Eben Rose, “brought a few things to my attention that indicated we’re not quite ready for this discussion yet.”

On Wednesday morning, May 25, Rose said his concern stemmed in part from a brick-like packet left at councilor seats at their May 16 meeting.

“It was a very large folder of about 700 or 800 pages, single sided with material for the workshop on all 386 homes built on these smaller lots over the past 10 years,” Rose said.

Apart from that being a lot to digest in a hurry, Rose said he was concerned about how the package might relate to a lawsuit brought by Thornton Heights resident Devin Deane that the city recently lost. If there was a connection, the packet didn’t say so, Rose said.

“The connection was never really made directly with what the relation was between the two, but I read over the case and it showed there were some four or five different administrative errors on the city’s part,” Rose said.

In the Feb. 5 decision, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills ruled South Portland Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette should not have issued a building permit for the home at 79 Thirlmere Ave. The case was remanded back to the city’s board of appeals for eventual referral to the planning board for review. However, Deane has complained that an appeals board meeting has yet to be scheduled.

“To me the question arose that, we have these laws and we should follow them uniformly and consistently and I find that really annoying when that doesn’t happen,” Rose said. “I can understand an applicant missing something, but these are the people who are paid to know our laws and they should follow them.”

On Monday morning, Blake, Rose, City Manager Jim Gailey and Planning Director Tex Haeuser met privately on the substandard lot issue. It was not an official council meeting, because fewer than three councilors were present, and thus did not qualify as an executive session.

“We all agreed staff needs to do a little more work before we talk about nonconforming lots,” Blake said. “So, this item will be coming back for discussion, and I think that will simplify our discussion. Basically, before we decide what path we want to be on moving forward, we want to have a good handle on the path we’ve been on.”

Rose put it another way: “The question arose, how many errors are there on these other 386 homes,” he said.

Among the planning department recommendations that had been up for consideration Monday were:

 Extend the requirement of planning board review to all single family house lots of less than 10,000 square feet in the Residential A and AA zoning districts, and less than 7,500 square feet in the Residential G zone.

 Create a minimum 12-foot setback between principal buildings in the Residential A, AA, and G zones.

 Prohibit homes on nonconforming lots in areas with combined sewer lines from having a basement, to prevent the foundation from tapping into the water table and making sump pumps run nonstop.

 Require that all setback rules be enforced when property owners adjust lot lines to make non-confirming lots slightly less non-confirming.

 Exempt residential density rules from zoning that lets homes be built on nonconforming lots so long as the new home meets all bulk and space requirements.

Some of those recommendations, Rose said, seemed to him to be oversteps. In the Deane case, two lots of record existed dating back to an early 20th century subdivision. As was the case in many such plans, a home was built on one lot, while the homeowner bought the existing lot to use as a yard. Development on such yard lots shouldn’t happen, Deane and Rose said, because density rules currently limit residential neighborhoods to four single-family homes per acre.

“That’s a hard requirement the planning board cannot change,” Rose said. “And to change that now, that’s really a big thing. It effectively changes zoning everywhere in the city and really nullifies a lot of what was done in 2007.

“It has the potential to alter the character of these neighborhoods, and maintaining that character, that’s the whole reason for zoning,” Rose said.

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