2016-07-22 / Front Page

Church neighbors file nuisance complaint

Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


The former St. John the Evangelist Church, located at 611 Main St. in South Portland, was sold to Cafua Management in December 2013. Cafua has since put the property on the market, leaving residents concerned over the rapid state of decay of the property over the past three years. (Duke Harrington photo) The former St. John the Evangelist Church, located at 611 Main St. in South Portland, was sold to Cafua Management in December 2013. Cafua has since put the property on the market, leaving residents concerned over the rapid state of decay of the property over the past three years. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — A landmark property in South Portland that has languished in development limbo for nearly three years has since fallen into such disrepair that neighbors this week resorted to filing a nuisance petition with the city.

“It’s distressing, I think, really. It’s upsetting,” said Frank Lorello of nearby Froswick Avenue, on Sunday, as he sat on a bicycle on the sidewalk adjacent to the church, and reviewed the property where he attended Mass as a child.

All around the building, grass had grown as high as 3 feet, with some weeds towering over Lorello’s head. A portion of the fence surrounding the former rectory next to the church had collapsed, trash was strewn in the yard, and, in several corners and alcoves of the church, beer cans and food wrappers had piled up. The gutters of the church were full to overflowing with pine needles, paint was peeling off the doors and woodwork on all four sides, and, on the back side, water had accumulated in the recessed steps of a basement door. Inside, standing water could be seen flooding across the room that used to house the South Portland Food Cupboard.


The former St. John the Evangelist Church has been adorned since last year with Dunham Group signs advertising it for sale. A broker for the firm did not return calls requesting comment on the current status of the building. (Duke Harrington photo) The former St. John the Evangelist Church has been adorned since last year with Dunham Group signs advertising it for sale. A broker for the firm did not return calls requesting comment on the current status of the building. (Duke Harrington photo) “If this was someone else’s yard that looked like this, wouldn’t we turn to that person to clean it up? It’s too bad. Look at all the work the city has done to Route 1 (Main Street), and now we have this,” he said. “It would be nice to have someone come in who treats the property respectfully, and respects the neighborhood.”


A food nook was found in a corner of an open garage attached to the old parochial school on the former St. John church property in South Portland, evidence that somebody has been living in the space. (Duke Harrington photo) A food nook was found in a corner of an open garage attached to the old parochial school on the former St. John church property in South Portland, evidence that somebody has been living in the space. (Duke Harrington photo) Most distressing to Lorello and other area residents, particularly those who live on Thirlmere and Aspen avenues, on either side of the church, was a door busted off of a garage attached to the site’s old parochial school since last November. Chemicals and paints left inside the space when the Catholic diocese deconsecrated the church and sold the property in 2013, now stand open and available to passing children, while, in a corner of the garage, a pile of beer cans, Hot Pocket wrappers and a Spaghetti-Os cans stand as testament to the site’s current use as a hobo nest.

However, it’s not just vagrants who have been drawn moth-like to the vacant property. Dog walkers have taken to using the tall grass behind the former catechism classrooms as a sort of all-purpose canine latrine. According to a direct abutter, Martha Martinson, on hot days, when the wind is right, the odor from the schoolyard is “really lovely.”

“It smells like manure back here, and knowing someone has been living here, it’s very scary,” she said. “And I’ve just heard the school building has actually been unlocked. If I had know that, I really would have had a lot of sleepless nights.”

“The neighbors are fed up,” said Thirlmere Avenue resident Joyce Mendoza. “I have attempted multiple times to contact the realtor, which is the Dunham Group, and they have indicated that they have been totally unsuccessful in convincing the owner to keep up the property even minimally. Right now it looks like something out of a horror movie.”

The reported broker for the site, Tom Moulton, did not return requests for comment from the Sentry.

Unable to get a response from Cafua Management, the Massachusetts-based current owner of the church property, Mendoza and 12 of her neighbors submitted a nuisance petition to city hall Wednesday morning.

Only used twice since its creation in 2012, the nuisance rule indicates any 10 property owners living within 500 feet of an offending site can force the city to correct unsafe conditions by signing a petition. Under the ordinance, the city council must respond to the petition by conducting a public hearing to determine if, in fact, hazard exists to public life, health or safety. If the council so declares, it can draw fines that range from $100 to $2,500 per day, until the property owner corrects the problem.

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said Tuesday the council will receive the nuisance petition at its Aug. 1 workshop. It will likely set the public hearing for its Aug. 15 meeting, he said.

A communications representative for Cafua Management promised a response on Tuesday, but nothing was received, by phone or email, before the Sentry’s deadline.

Founded in 1980, Cafua is reported to be the largest privately held Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owner in the nation, with more than 300 shops in eight states. A September 2014 profile of the company in the Boston Globe reported Cafua “grosses more than $250 million a year.”

The former St. John the Evangelist Church, located at 611 Main St., opened in 1940 to serve residents of the Thornton Heights neighborhood, many of whom worked at the nearby Rigby Yard rail station. The church was built in 1962, according to city tax records. However, declining attendance in the new century prompted a wave of parish consolidations that shuttered more than a dozen Catholic churches in Maine from 2004 to 2013. St. John was among the last to close, with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which includes a cluster of churches in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, deciding to merge its congregation with nearby Holy Cross.

St. John held its final Mass Sept. 11, 2013, and the 2.33- acre lot was sold to Cafua Management that December for $731,025.

Cafua initially intended to tear down the church and replace it with a 24-hour doughnut shop. Neighbors rallied against the plan, however, and before Cafua submitted a site plan application to the city, the council created a new Main Street Community Commercial zoning district around the church. That zone specifically forbade fast food restaurants and drive-thru windows, effectively killing Cafua’s plans.

As a compromise, the council hatched a plan to lease part of Sawyer Park, at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets, to Cafua. But members of the adjacent Congregation Bet Ha’am Jewish Temple didn’t fancy living next to a fast food establishment any more than neighbors of the Catholic church, and the deal eventually fell through.

Last year, Dunham Group signs went up on the church and, in April, word came that Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson had signed a purchase and sale agreement with Cafua. Responding to media inquiries, Anderson said he planned to keep the church for some form of commercial development, and, with city approval of a zoning change to allow more than four residential units per acre, the current limit for the neighborhood, he might erect as many as 10 to 15 living spaces either in, or in place of the school.

But just before a planning board review on the plan, Anderson abruptly pulled out of the deal. Jim Gailey, city manager at the time, publicly attributed the collapse to a short deadline set by Cafua to close the deal, a timeframe he deemed to be “unusual.”

Mendoza said that while she and her immediate neighbors supported Anderson’s proposal, others in Thornton Heights are concerned for heavy infill development, which, she theorized, “might have scared him off.” Meanwhile, one public official in South Portland cited a “lack of financial capacity” to pull off the project. Mendoza said that’s discouraging, claiming she’s learned since Anderson pulled out that a five-year moratorium on cutting into Main Street, timed from recent road work, could have been skirted by bringing utilities in off Aspen Avenue, while grants for affordable housing might have been available if the city had extended the motel zone across Route 1 to include that part of the church lot now in the new Main Street Community Commercial district.

Anderson could not be reached for comment, and Reny declined to say what might have caused him to withdraw his application.

However, all hope is not lost for redevelopment of the site. On Tuesday Reny said at least one other developer is waiting in the wings.

“I am speaking with one developer right now who is interested in the property, but that’s all I can say at this point,” he said.

Pressed for more details, Reny said while there have been a few “tire kickers” crossing his threshold in recent months, this particular developer “is serious.”

“We’re hoping that we’ll have something that we can bring forward in the near future,” he said.

“If and when it goes under contract, and the developer gets to a point where he’s ready to engage the community, I just hope people will be open-minded and give good feedback of what they are looking for,” Reny said. “But I think the neighborhood is going to have to come to terms with something that may mean having a slightly higher number of units in that area.”

In the meantime, both Reny and Mayor Tom Blake say a council declaration that the church lot has become a public nuisance depends on a finding of genuine hazards.

“If the neighbors truly want to have a public hearing, we can’t prevent that. It’s written in the ordinance that there’s a clear process,” Reny said. “There’s quite a big difference between a property that’s in need of maintenance and one that, under ordinance, is a public nuisance. There has to be something there that’s a risk to the general public.”

“Tall grass really doesn’t qualify,” Blake said, although he agreed the property does look “shabby.”

“But it’s tough to prove a nuisance, really tough,” he said. “We really can’t act just because the lawn needs to be mowed.”

Mendoza and about a dozen of her neighbors gathered on the walk beside the church on Sunday and said the tall grass does indeed create a danger. In essence, they said, it acts as an advertisement to all that the property is vacant, making it a lure for illicit behavior, the least of which may be squatters.

“Any vacant property can be very problematic for law enforcement,” Police Chief Ed Googins said on Tuesday. “My biggest concern is if buildings there are unsecured, or if people have a way of getting into them. There is always the concern for fire, or some other issue that arises. Nobody wants to deal with that. So, that to me is a major concern there.”

Records provided by South Portland Police Department Crime Analyst Janet Vangeli show six issues at the church property since May 10.

On that date, police performed a “special attention check” at the site, although Vangeli declined to release a narrative from any related report that might explain the reason for that review.

However, neighbors say around that date a pile of blankets thought to be used as bedding was removed from the front entrance of the church.

Then, at about 2 a.m. on June 26, John Foster of South Portland and William Nee of Scarborough, both 30, were caught trying to break into the church.

“They were arrested after causing pry type damage to the exterior of a window at 611 Main St.,” SPPD spokesman Lt. Frank Clark said. “That case remains pending in the Portland Unified Court.”

Police also responded on July 12, and again on July 13 to reports of a pair of pickup trucks, reportedly lacking license plates, parked in the church lot since the July 4 weekend. Mendoza and her neighbors, Scott and Beth McKeen, say two men, a woman and a dog appeared to be living on the rectory lawn, behind the broken fence, in an area not visible from Main Street.

Also on July 13, police performed a check of all buildings on the site, and, after reportedly finding the front door of the school left unlocked, “issued a warning.”

“The truck owners were not located that (first) day and a message was left for the property owner/realtor,” Clark said. “The next day, on July 13, officers were following up on the call the day before and found an open door at the location. The building was checked and the officers ultimately made contact with both the property owner and the truck owners, who were believed to be working in the area and living in their trucks. They agreed to relocate.”

Still, Beth McKeen says, for her, that incident was “the last straw.”

“We were out for a walk with our family, my daughter and my 3-year-old grandson, and as we came by the church, one of the men was urinating right here in the parking lot,” she said. “So, that got me in action. When my family doesn’t feel safe visiting me, that’s when I have to do something.”

Area residents say they fear use of the church property by the homeless could lead to an increase in drug-related crimes. Scott McKeen said his vehicle has been riffled through at least once in recent months.

However, city officials say trespassing on the site, no matter how inviting its lack of maintenance might make it to those seeking a hassle-free home for the night, probably doesn’t rise to a nuisance.

“I noticed a sleeping bag on the front porch for 10 days, but I can show you 10 different places in the city where people are camping out,” Blake said.

“Homelessness and vagrancy, that’s not a public nuisance. That’s something altogether different,” Reny said. “That might be a trespassing issue, and for that I’d want to speak to the police department.”

Both Blake and Reny said a better recourse would be to try and engage Cafua in direct talks.

“From both times it’s been used before, I’ve seen how unhealthy these nuisance hearings can be for all parties,” Blake said. “I think we should do everything we can to resolve this by getting people to talk to each other.”

Meanwhile, Googins lauded concern expressed by neighbors, as their watchful eyes help the department direct limited resources.

“For myself, I am very appreciative of the neighbors’ efforts to keep an eye on the property, because that is going to mitigate the issues that we do have there,” Googins said.

On that note, one nearby resident, who declined to be named, said she has taken to mowing the front lawn of the rectory, even though that’s technically trespassing, just to keep the place from looking so obviously unwatched.

“What can I say, the place really looks like it’s gone to hell,” she said.

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