2017-08-04 / Community

South Portland to rezone Meeting House Hill area

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland’s comprehensive plan was finalized in 2012, it envisioned a re-emergence of the city’s historic neighborhood centers, with a variety of commercial hubs within easy walking distance of area homes.

Flash forward five years and the city council plans to enact zoning changes designed to bring that concept to Meeting House Hill. And, as happened in Knightville a few years ago, when CIA Cafe opened and quickly became the center of a new mixed use renaissance, the hope is that a coffee shop will be the lever that moves the area toward a new vitality. At a July 24 workshop, the council agreed to create a new Meeting House Community Commercial District by carving three lots at 352, 362, and 371 Cottage Road out of the current Residential Transition zone.

The change will allow the conversion of office space at 372 Cottage Road to retail food service. Cape Elizabeth resident Gail Bruzgo requested the change in hopes of relocating her business, Omi’s Coffee Shop, from Brackett Street in Portland. Bruzgo said she did not realize until after buying the building that a business like her coffee shop would not be allowed in the Residential Transition Zone, which was limited to residential housing and office space. The Meeting House Community Commercial District Zone, however, allows for a wider array of commercial uses, including restaurants (so long as they do not have a drive-thru, or external ordering speaker) retail shops, and bed and breakfast establishments, as well as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, museums and art galleries, churches, schools and government use.

In the recent past, such zoning change requests have started at the planning board. However, based on kickback from those applications, City Manager Scott Morelli said “We’re mindful that this council really doesn’t want to do an ad hoc approach to zoning requests.”

For that reason, the new standard operating procedure, he said, would be to present the requested change first to the policy maker (i.e. the city council), and only then move it to a public hearing before the planning board, if councilors signal an inclination to approve, or at least consider, the change.

In fact, the council said even more properties in that area should shift into the new zone.

“We’re possibly looking at an ember that would like to turn into a nice little flame,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I’m wondering why we wouldn’t extend the zone even further. Rather than have this little block party with separate zones, I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to open that Meeting House Hill (Community Commercial) Zone go all the way down to David’s (Restaurant, at 388 Cottage Road).”

“It’s a very commercial area of town already,” said Ed Rowe, owner of the building at 352 Cottage Road and a co-applicant to the change. “I think it only makes sense to call it what it is.”

Rowe said out that the current Residential Transitional Zone abuts a Limited Business district, meaning other restaurants such as David’s, and sandwich shops such as DiPietro’s, are only a stone’s throw from Bruzgo’s proposed coffee shop.

The comprehensive plan envisions the Meeting House Community Commercial District going from Sawyer Street all the way to Angel Avenue on one side of Cottage Road, and just past Edgewood Road, on the other.

“I think we can all agree that a coffee shop is not a big box store,” Councilor Eben Rose said, supporting the change. “But to say you can have a restaurant like David’s over here, but then not over here, it just seems like such a patchwork.”

“This gives us a chance to move away from the city’s habit of spot zoning,” Morgan agreed.

However, City Planner Tex Haeuser cautioned about proceeding with too much gusto.

“I think the chances of this thing bogging down are much greater if we go that far down (Cottage Road),” he said.

To help Bruzgo, who runs Omi’s with her daughter and daughter-in-law, get up and running as soon as possible, the council agreed to limit its attention to the three buildings where the zone jump has been specifically requested, with a vote coming as soon as its Aug. 7 meeting. The council will then take a more leisurely look at the rest of the area, deciding at a later date which additional lots, if any, should be added into the new Meeting House Community Commercial District.

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