2017-05-26 / Front Page

Planning board delays zone change

Members want to tour proposed housing authority project site
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When it comes to construction projects that are too big to be believed, the South Portland planning board members have decided they are going to have to see it for themselves.

After sitting through nearly 90 minutes of testimony Tuesday night, almost all of which panned a proposal put forth by the South Portland Housing Authority to build a 28-unit housing complex at the end of Sunset Avenue in the city’s Thornton Heights neighborhood, board members decided they needed to get a lay of the land. The efforts of City Planner Tex Haeuser to guide the board through the site using Google Earth, even after the system began to work properly, did not work for board members.

Instead, the board tabled discussion on the topic and scheduled a site walk for 6 p.m. Thursday, June 8. The board will then resume review of the project at its next meeting on June 13.

“Where should the planning board members park,” asked Haeuser, drawing titters from the audience, as if he’d just made their very point.

Of all the people who spoke about the project, only audience regular Russ Lunt of Brigham Street offered any kudos.

“People got to live somewhere,” he said, noting that neighbors have also knocked an South Portland Housing Authority proposal to build a 48-unit, five-story housing complex at 51 Ocean St., in South Portland’s Knightville village.

“Everywhere they go they get vicious opposition, but there’s an awful need for housing,” Lunt said.

In fact, Haeuser said the city’s 2012 comprehensive plan says South Portland needs 870 new housing units for households in the $40,000 to $75,000 income bracket in order to keep pace with an American Community Survey finding that most urban Maine areas need at least 58.6 percent of all living units to be affordable for that demographic.

The South Portland Housing Authority proposal would reserve 20 percent of available units in two 14-unit towers for residents earning 80 percent of the area median income. That would mean holding 12 of the multi-bedroom apartments – there will be 16 three-bedroom units, and 12 with two bedrooms – for renters making no more than $46,000 per person, or $65,700 for family of four.

When South Portland Housing Authority bought the 3.41-acre site in November for $185,000, it was already approved for a five-unit cluster development. However, South Portland Housing Authority Development Office Development Officer Isaac Misiuk said after running the numbers, the authority found it would have to charge $270,000 per unit to recoup its investment.

“From a mission point of view, to provide affordable housing, that’s very costly,” he said. “That’s what prompted this whole economy of scale (proposal). We feel the density numbers we are presenting tonight is kind of that sweet spot.”

Some in the audience questioned South Portland Housing Authority’s status as a nonprofit, pointing out that the project would be spearheaded by its development arm.

“They said, how many units can we stick in there so we can make a buck. I get it. We all want to make money,” said Gerry Avenue resident Amy Vogt. “But all of us who live there now, I think we’d all agree that we’re all moderate income. We work hard. We pay our taxes. And to have any investment we make into that area ambushed by a 28- unit apartment complex, it’s just unfair.”

The purpose of Tuesday’s planning board hearing was to consider South Portland Housing Authority’s request for a zoning change to move its development site out of the Residential A district and into its own new Conditional G zone. To make the project a go, that means increasing the side and rear building setbacks from 6 to 15 feet and establishing a 15-foot buffer between the two five-story towers, but it also means reducing the required street frontage from 50 feet to 40, reducing the lot area from 7,000 square feet to 5,000, and increasing the maximum building height from 35-feet to 50, while also laminating the cap on residential density, currently set at four living units per acre.

That, most residents said, will pave the way for a project out of scale with the surrounding homes, especially given the narrow width of the streets in that area. One other zoning change would let South Portland Housing Authority create one parking space per living unit, versus the current requirement of 1.5. Most working families have two incomes, and thus two cars, most area residents said, citing personal experience, along with a fear that extra cars will spill out onto side streets.

Misiuk however, said that probability was considered and dismissed by his firm.

“We’re renting to low-to-moderate incomes,” he said. “(For them) a second car is a luxury.”

However, the common theme among naysayers remained, the area could not accommodate an increase of 28 additional living units, even if that meant no more than 28 additional cars driving in and out of the neighborhood on a daily basis. Of particular concern, they said, is the site’s proximity to Rigby Rail Yard. If there was ever an industrial accident there that required an evacuation of the neighborhood, they said, the result would be havoc, especially considering the renewal project two years ago that reduced Route 1 from four lanes to two where it meets Gerry Avenue, creating a kind of pinch point.

“If that (rail yard) blows up nobody in that area is going to get out of there real fast with the roads narrow like they are,” said McLean Street resident Gwendolyn Steuterman. “I believe something should go down in that area, but 28 units is way too much.”

“You have no place to go as it is, and if you have even more people to get out of there, then you’ve got a problem,” said Gerry Avenue resident Doug Wyman, who said he’s lived through one evacuation caused by a rail accident in his 35 years there.

“We all acknowledge that there is a need for more affordable housing, but we are very congested down there,” said Gerry Avenue resident Cindy Myers. “If you don’t live in that neighborhood you don’t know what it’s like in terms of traffic and congestion. It’s already very difficult to get onto Route 1 in the morning to get to work. That’s only going to get worse.”

Myers also faulted South Portland Housing Authority for a statement made at a public meeting last month, when asked how the project would benefit the surrounding community.

“The answer we got was that there will be more children for our children to play with. That’s very lame,” she said.

South Portland Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Hulsey said it’s his firm’s mission to put people where people are.

“Why did we pick this site? We want to build residential homes in a residential neighborhood,” he said.

Still, others complained over dangers in the area for the expected surge in young residents.

The Route 1 reconstruction project included sewer upgrades that meant building new retaining ponds in the area near the proposed housing complex – water bodies that have yet to be fenced in.

“That’s not a safe place for children to be playing. We’re very lucky we haven’t had anybody drown yet,” said Sunset Avenue resident Michael Gagnon.

He and others also claimed the development site has as much as 30 feet of fill from the days when it was owned by Gorham Sand and Gravel, while some claimed that sediment is already starting to slide down the bank, which drops off more than 30 feet to the rail yard. Others noted the lack of fencing separating homes from the railway, along with the transients in the area, increasing the potential danger to children.

“I didn’t know there were still hobos in this day and age, but there are,” Vogt said. “There are transients down there. They have forts right there where that drop off is. That’s where they hide so their campfires can’t be seen and stuff.”

In the end, board members said they could not make a reasonable recommendation to the city council on passage of the requested zone change unless they actually spent time in the neighborhood, to experience the street and traffic conditions, and the property characteristics, described by residents.

“This is a significant zone change and I don’t know how we could even act on this without walking it first,” said planning board Chairman Kevin Carr. “When I try to visualize the width of the roads there, it is little bit alarming. I can’t visualize how this will all connect.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

Return to top