2017-04-28 / Front Page

SoPo buildings get a haircut

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City approved the first reading April 19 of zoning rules that would create a new Commercial Suburban District, but excised from it a planning board recommendation to allow buildings as high as 156 feet – roughly 14 stories tall – in the designated areas near the Maine Mall.

If approved, that change would have paved the way for potential construction of the third tallest building in the state of Maine.

“That has been a subject of concern amongst members of the public,” City Manager Scott Morelli said, in introducing the amendment to limit building height in the new zone to 86 feet.

The new zone was first recommended to the city council by the planning board, which voted in favor of it 6-0 at its April 4 meeting. City Planning Director Tex Haesuer said at that meeting that the new zone was intended to accommodate a pair of development proposals, although neither had a formal site plan application attached to it.

Those projects, off Clark’s Pond Parkway, and at the Sable Oaks golf course, would combine to create 550 new apartment units, Haeuser said and, among other things, the new zone would eliminate residential density limits and allow construction of the projects.

At the April 4 meeting, the planning board also considered rules that would establish so-called inclusionary zoning, which would compel developers of large building projects to provide a set number of units at rates affordable to households earning the area median income – about $76,800 for a family of four, based on 2016 calculations by the federal department of housing and urban development. Also on the table was creation of a housing trust fund to be used by city hall to create and retain a stock of affordable housing in South Portland.

The planning board kicked those concepts to an April 25 workshop, but did adopt one complimentary aspect of that proposal, a “height bonus” in the Commercial Suburban zoning rules. Generally, buildings in the new zone would be limited to 86 feet tall, but Haeuser’s draft suggested allowing buildings to top out at 156 feet high when slated to include of a set number of “middleincome” housing units.

However, the planning board elected to strike that link, ruling that its purview is best limited to how property is used, not who it serves. In other words, of a building is accepted at 156 feet high with low-rent units, it should be just as acceptable if they all go for market rate.

“From a land use purpose, it doesn’t matter to me – whether it’s 86 feet or 156 feet – what’s inside it,” said planning board member Linda Boudreau.

That decision prompted a sharp response from many South Portland residents.

Never on the table

At the April 19 city council meeting, Haeuser said news

media coverage of the 156-foot ceiling resulted in “some unexpected interest in the general community.”

“There is no proposal for any tall building anywhere in this part of the city,” he said. “It was simply, if one is amending a zone, one has to pick a height to put in there and, in this part of the city, it would have been, in my opinion, artificial to have put in a low height, given the fact that we had other provisions for separation from other uses, and other residential uses.”

Haeuser urged the council to edit out the planning board recommendation, leaving the maximum allowed height in the new district at 86 feet.

“Let’s just get rid of the height question for now,” he said. “That’s not going to be a problem for anyone out there who is proposing to do a development at this time. If we need to increase the height in the future, we can.”

According to Vincent A. Maietta, president of V&E Enterprises, he plans to build 260 market-rate apartments on 12 acres of the area of Clarks Pond, near Home Depot. The development would include four buildings, each containing 65 apartments, and each six stories tall. Of the 260 units, 56 would be one-bedroom apartments, while the rest would have two bedrooms, he said, noting that the development is expected to serve younger people and seniors who most likely will have jobs in the Maine Mall area, which includes payment processing giant WEX and the two semiconductor plants.

“We think the people who work in that area would appreciate being able to live in that area,” Maietta said, “But we never proposed anything near the height the ordinance would have allowed.”

Peter Connell of Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates said his company is looking to build a mixeduse housing development at the Sable Oaks golf course, one that would include a series of duplex, triplex and townhouse buildings totaling 300 living units, along with possible assisted living centers, all clustered in 11 new “neighborhoods.” The project would be built in phases, he said.

“They are exploring the long-term, and maybe even midterm viability of the golf course as maybe not being the highest and best use anymore,” Haeuser said. “But it’s all just very conceptual at this point.”

Still, Connell told councilors that not only does the project not envision tall buildings, it also does not anticipate rental units.

“Our initial conclusion has been residential properties for sale, because there’s virtually no inventory in South Portland,” he said.

On that front, Councilor Linda Cohen agreed.

“Housing stock in South Portland is a real hot commodity, because there’s not much of it,” she said. “It goes on the market and it’s gone just like that. I think it’s important that we add to that stock. As we become less and less able to rely on state and federal funds, it’s important that we build up our tax base in order to become more self-sustaining. We do what we can for the environment, but we have to think about the taxpayers as well.”

The real devil

The city council quickly and unanimously voted in an amendment to the Commercial Suburban zone to remove the planning board’s 156 feet height limit, shaving it back down to a maximum of 86 feet. But, as it turns out, that was not the greatest concern with new zoning rules that would enable the proposed developments.

Paul Bradbury, director of Portland International Jetport, went to the podium to advise councilors that jets often come and go from the airport passing directly over the golf course. The most recent noise study, prepared in 2008, measured average jet noise in area of the golf course where homes might go at 65 to 70 decibels.

“That’s an average, so you’ve got to figure it gets up there to the rock concert level at some points,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

Bradbury said the measurements give extra weight to nighttime noise, and while jets built since the study are both larger and quieter, meaning the area where peak sound was measured may not grow by much over the next 20 years, he could not guarantee the zone is now as noisy as it will ever get.

But even at current noise levels, Bradbury advised against putting homes within the high noise zone.

“Those areas would be incompatible with (Federal Aviation Administration) policies for residential construction,” Bradbury said. “We have kind of an issue if we put residents in that zone. That would be a concern.”

“When we establish our development plan we will take (jet noise) into consideration,” Connell said, although he acknowledged first hearing that noise from the jetport could be an issue “just this afternoon.” Still, he acknowledged it was not a surprise.

“There are a couple of areas on the Sable Oaks golf course where the noise overhead seriously interrupts my backswing,” he said.

Ready or not?

That left it to the council to decide if the new Commercial Suburban zone needed more tweaking. Morgan said the council should not rule based on their personal feelings on where people should live.

“We came into the room tonight thinking the devil in the room was the height issue, and we slam dunked that with one sentence in one amendment, with virtually no discussion,” Morgan said. “But really, the devil in the room is the noise. So, I do support this zoning change and the creation of new housing stock, but there’s still a part of me that goes, ‘Ewww, would I want to live there?’”

Councilors Eben Rose and Susan Henderson, on the other hand, tried to put the brakes on adoption of the new Commercial Suburban zone by moving to recommit the proposal to workshop.

“I don’t want to come off as opposed to this in any way, but I am concerned about a number of things,” Rose said. “I don’t feel this is quite ripe for us to be looking at a zoning change.”

For example, Rose said staffing needs at the fire and police departments may need to be addressed to accommodate that many new residents who would pile into the city’s west end to fill the new homes. Meanwhile, a master plan for sidewalks should be created connecting any new developments to the Maine Mall, he said.

“It makes no sense for someone who lives there to have to get in their car and drive a quarter mile to work at the mall because there are no sidewalks,” Rose said.

“I think there’s more talking that can be done to make everything more clear,” Henderson agreed. “I would like to see things thought out more holistically.”

However, Haueser advised the time to act is now, before the economy turns sour and developers shy away from large projects.

“I do feel a bit of a sense of urgency about this,” he said. “Economic cycles do not last. My experience is that by the time I get done doing something that will take advantage of a cycle, it ends.”

“I feel like we are being rushed,” Rose said, noting that a memo from Morelli suggesting an amendment to reduce the building height arrived in his inbox only an hour before the meeting.

Meanwhile, Henderson pointed to testimony from Fire Chief James Wilson, who said the department was a little taken aback by the planning board vote for 156-foot-tall buildings, given that tallest ladders his department has only go up 100 feet.

“I’m about as far as you can get from an engineer but the first thing I thought when I read about this was, oh, my God, what is the fire department going to do with a 14-story building?” Henderson said. “Then, after the planning board passes it, we hear tonight that (the first department) is not so keen on it. So, sometimes things do get rushed.”

Rose’s motion to send the Commercial Suburban zone proposal back to workshop failed 2-4. The council then unanimously approved the first reading. A final vote in now scheduled for the May 1 council meeting.

Meanwhile, the planning board, which workshopped Haeuser’s “inclusionary zoning” concept at its April 25 will conduct a public hearing on the proposal May 9.

Return to top