2017-05-05 / Front Page

City adopts new zone

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — South Portland has eliminated residential density limits to two large areas near the Maine Mall, allowing two proposed developments to go forward that have promised as many as 500 new living units.

The city council unanimously approved the new Commercial Suburban (CS) District, zoning areas at its May 1 meeting.

“This is a forward-thinking zone change that allows flexibility for our city so that we can grow thoughtfully as a city,” Mayor Patti Smith said. “I am very much in favor of it.”

The new zone was recommended to the city council by the planning board following a 6-0 vote at its April 4 meeting. City Planning Director Tex Haeuser said at that session that the new zone was meant to accommodate a pair of development proposals brought to his attention. Neither had a formal site plan application attached to it at this time.

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 (AMI) — 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 carved the CS zone into a separate discussion from the inclusionary zone rules and the latter of which was discussed at subsequent planning board workshops. At the most recent meeting, May 2, it was agreed the inclusionary rules should compel developers of projects with 20 or more living units to offer 10 percent of those apartments or condos at the affordable rates, which would cap at roughly $1,200 per month for a two-person household earning $61,500 annually.

One early aspect of the CS zone borrowed from the inclusionary zone draft was a “height bonus.” Buildings in the CS zone would have been limited to 86 feet in height. However, Haeuser’s draft suggested allowing buildings to top out at 156 feet high when slated to include of a set number of “middle-income” housing units.

The planning board elected to strike that link in its recommendation to the council, 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.

But that decision prompted a sharp response from many South Portland residents and, at its first reading of the CS zone rules April 19, the city council elected to strike the height bonus, limiting any new housing complexes to no taller than 86 feet high.

Mayor Smith pointed out that, apart form the blowback over the 156-foot limit, there had been little to no public comment on the new CS zone.

“We’ve had a lot of really good discussion and no citizen has really come forward throughout the process really having an issue with the changes that were made (or) the comments that were made,” she said.

However, final approval of the new zone did not come without some additional criticism.

Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis faulted the council for acting so soon for final passage of a major zoning change that was first introduced less than a month ago, especially given that the need was driven by developer requests.

“Why the rush?” he asked, adding, “This seems like it was done in some little backroom somewhere, getting put together in meetings between various unelected officials and businesspeople.”

Although Haeuser took credit for the 156-foot height rule as his own idea and not something asked for by either developer in need of the density limit change, he did say at the April 19 meeting that the 86-foot height limit could be extended down the road if needed for other projects.

“I would like to see some sort of guarantee that we are not going to just pass this zoning change and then turn around when some other developer wants a higher building and change it again,” Lewis said. “This ad hoc approach to zoning has really got to go. There is no planning involved in it whatsoever. It’s just reactionary — that when somebody comes up with an idea, we are going to jump through hoops to make it happen for them, for reasons that I have yet to fathom.”

Lewis also opined that zoning changes should be based on more than proposals from developers that do not fit within current code limits.

“You don’t change zoning for two developers individually,” he said. “You create a zone that says this is where we are going to allow this type of apartment building going forward and keep it that way. You don’t change zoning to help out specific individuals. You change the zoning to do what’s best for the town as a whole, and that’s not the way it’s been done in South Portland ever since I moved here over a decade ago, and I’d like to see the city council put the brakes on this. This could be a good thing, but I’d just like to be sure that it gets done right.

“I think there’s a lot of random, hodge-podge planning that goes on in Knightville,” said B Street resident Caroline Hendry, suggesting that all city zones, from her home to the mall could benefit from, “thoughtful, holistic planning of a whole neighborhoods.”

Councilor Claude Morgan took umbrage to audience reactions.

“One comment seems to be an allegation that we’ve struck up a special deal with developers,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you who the developer is here. I’m not sure that we’ve met them here in our chambers, but if anybody is having a party with the developers, I haven’t been invited, and that hurts me.”

The developers of both projects targeted for the new CS zone were at the April 19 council meeting, and each spoke at length.

Vincent Maietta, president of V&E Enterprises, said he plans to build 260 market-rate apartments on 12 acres in 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, Maietta said, adding that the complex is expected to serve younger people and seniors who most likely will have jobs in the Maine Mall area.

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

“I will say this is a thoughtful approach to development in that we know full well that the life cycle of the Maine Mall is limited, and unless things can change around the mall, that mall is doomed, someday, and we would very much like to stretch its lifecycle out, and part of that plan is this development,” he said.

Morgan said the council does not look at the trees of individual buildings and apartment units. “That’s for the planning board,” he said. Instead, Morgan said the council’s job is to see the figurative forest, and thus, “determine if the zoning change is appropriate.”

“My biggest concern about re-zoning here is that that’s a pretty noisy area, as we heard at our last meeting in the presentation from the jetport, and frankly that concerns me,” Morgan said, recalling the average decibel levels at the Sable Oaks Golf CLUB by Jetport Director Paul Bradbury, according to a 2008 study.

“If the mean average over the course of a day is 65 decibels, that means at some point it has to be peaking at over 100-andsomething,” Morgan said. “ I could not thrive in that environment. So, it makes me wonder who will be. But I have to believe that some people would be willing to live there and some folks can, in fact, develop housing appropriately so people will live there.”

Morgan said the zoning change was “thoughtful,” in large part because the rezoned area is one of the few places in South Portland with room for a large housing project.

Councilor Linda Cohen agreed saying the amending zoning in the Maine Mall area has been in progress for “about four years,” dating to public workshops that led to adoption on the city’s current comprehensive plan. That plan envisions mixed used construction around the mall, including more and larger housing developments.

“We did talk about this. This is not new,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher, who sat though the entire comprehensive planning process.

Beecher also decried the notion that the council was simply fast tracking pet projects.

“We are not here to rubber stamp either one of these companies or projects,” Beecher said. “We are merely here to change the districts to allow for more density.”

Meanwhile, Councilor Susan Henderson said she “has really agonized over this.” HeR support, she said, was predicated on the fact that when the planning board does send its final recommendation to council for inclusionary zoning rules, those mandates for affordable housing will be backdated to Feb. 26 — the date of the first public workshop on the topic — and that will make them applicable to both new housing projects.

“Only that makes it confortable for me to consider voting for this,” she said

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