2017-06-16 / Front Page

Council signals no love for ‘spot zoning’

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A South Portland Housing Authority proposal to redevelop the former Martin’s Point medical building lot on Ocean Street, in the heart of the city’s historic Knightville neighborhood, appears dead in the water following a city council workshop Monday, called to consider zoning changes needed to make it happen.

City Councilor Claude Morgan was the first to raise a red flag over what he deemed to be “spot zoning,” interrupting a presentation by City Planner Tex Haeuser on why current rules do not meet the growth needs of the neighborhood.

“I have some objection to the way the agenda is laid out tonight,” Morgan said, after waving down the attention of Mayor Patti Smith. “It seems to give special exception to the South Portland Housing Authority’s project, which is a private development. I think what we are being asked here is to give guidance tonight to help a private development along its way, but it’s being billed as a general discussion of zoning in the area.”

South Portland Housing Authority reportedly has the property at 51 Ocean St. under contract through its development arm, with an eye toward creating workforce housing, offering one- and two-bedroom units, along with studio spaces, are rates deemed affordable to those earning 80 percent of the area’s median income. Its plan to replace the former Martin’s Point office with a 48-unit, five-story housing complex, was literally shouted down by nearly 100 residents who attended a May 9 public presentation of its design concept. The plan was to expand the number of units to 76 in later phases, spreading them to an adjacent property at 63 Ocean St. Since then, South Portland Housing Authority officials have scaled back the proposal, reportedly agreeing to keep total construction at the 48 units originally targeted for Phase I of the project.

However, that smaller development still exceeds current codes for Knightville, which permits no more than 24 living units per acre, while limiting building height to 50 feet. South Portland Housing Authority had also expressed a desire to reduce the number of parking spaces required per housing unit from 1.5 to one, due in part to space restrictions, but also predicated on the theory that median-income families who rent from are less likely to have more than one vehicle.

Although South Portland Housing Authority has publicly discussed its development idea, Haeuser said it has yet to file a formal site plan review application with his office. That did not set well with Morgan.

“I’m a little uncomfortable that we are being asked tonight to offer guidance to help a private developer know whether to pull the trigger or not,” he said. “It should be subject to the same rules that other private developers are subject to, and that would not allow them a special inside track.

“I think allowing them a special presentation is inappropriate. I just wanted to put that out there,” Morgan said, referring to himself as “the skunk at the picnic.”

“That’s OK, we all take turns being skunks,” Smith said. “But I would have to agree. I think everything has its own process. What I would like to hear is what people want in their neighborhood, broadly, for them, and not have a specific project discussed tonight, and given a special audience.”

Smith noted that the South Portland Housing Authority zone change request had jumped the line on other council workshop agenda items, a list that currently extends deep into the fall, without much apparent input from the council itself.

“This did not bubble up the workshop list, this went immediately to workshop, which normally doesn’t happen,” she said.

That, however, prompted a question from new city manger Scott Morelli.

“If someone did want to make a zoning change to their property, or a property they are interested in, what is the proper procedure and mechanism you’ve followed in the past, in order to get that to the property body, which ultimately is the city council?” he asked.

Haeuser said that has always been an open question during his decades-long tenure – whether a zoning-change request should go first to a city council workshop, or a planning board hearing. When exactly city staff steps in to begin crafting zoning language to enable a proposed change also varies, he said.

“I think what’s critical is that a public hearing be held very early in the process, so that opinions are not formed before the public has had a chance to be heard,” said Councilor Sue Henderson. “I frankly opposed having this workshop first because I felt information from this would be given to the planning board which would somewhat bias it before its public hearing that is required by law, and is critical.”

At Monday’s workshop, more than a dozen Knightville residents and property owners spoke up about growing development pressure in the downtown area, which has become increasingly trendy since a 2012 sewer project that included a $1.44 million rebuild of Ocean Street, including wider sidewalks and new street lighting. Those wider walks caused a reconfiguration of on-street parking that was at the center of intense and sometimes acrimonious debate that dragged on from more than three years, and spots see-sawed back and forth between diagonal and parallel configuration as part of council efforts to appease various interest groups. Concern over parking, traffic and safety remains at the crux of all things Knightville, the speakers said, with many citing fear that any large-scale projects could overwhelm the village character and infrastructure limitations of the district.

“This area is going to become a nightmare and we can’t handle it,” A Street resident Troy Goodwin said.

After nearly three hours of testimony and debate, the council agreed its best step would be to draft a new master plan for Knightville, similar to the one created two years ago for the adjacent Mill Creek shopping district, following dozens of public brainstorming sessions that balanced current need with a vision for the area extending out several decades. Direction was given to Haeuser to launch that process as soon as possible.

“Our goal is to be proactive and understand,” Smith said. “We have to be very, very careful how we do that.”

“That’s the important thing,” Morgan said. “I do not want us to be making broad decisions based on the time schedule of one particular project that seemed to have been brought here and inserted into the middle of our discussions. Better to be safe than sorry and take the long route, rather than let one project drive us to perhaps an erroneous conclusion.”

Based on the Mill Creek planning process, as well as the most recent comprehensive plan update work, Haeuser said drafting a new visioning document for Knightville would be a process that could take more than a year and cost upward of $100,000. The first public meetings could be held as early as this winter, he said.

South Portland Housing Authority Executive Director Mike Hulsey left Monday’s meeting before it ended. He could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the council direction, and how it impacts the authority’s development plan.

Return to top