2018-03-09 / Community

‘Landmark’ city business looks to expand

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city council has granted an initial green light to expansion of the H. B. Fleming property, located at 89 Pleasant St.

Founded in 1955 to do pile driving and local marine work, the company now works throughout New England doing that plus excavation and bridge work, as well as installing cofferdams, retaining walls and underwater pipelines. According to company treasurer David Gifford, writing in a Nov. 6 letter to City Manager Scott Morelli, the company is “approaching the point of outgrowing the current space we possess.”

With that in mind, it spent $400,000 on Oct. 20 to augment its 2.5-acre lot by buying the adjacent 1-acre property at 30 Thaddeus St. That lot, which includes a home built in 1920, is listed by the city as being owned by Flying Pond Real Estate, which shares H. B. Fleming’s Peasant Avenue mailing address. The main H. B. Fleming lot is owned by Vienna Realty, also at 89 Pleasant Ave.

As of the April 2017 tax commitment, H.B. Fleming’s Pleasant Avenue property is valued by the city at $553,800. Its new Thadeus Street lot was assessed prior to its recent transfer at $188,700.

However, there is one small hitch with H. B. Fleming simply expanding operations to the house lot. The Fleming mother lot lies within the city’s Non-Residential Industrial Zone, while the Thadeus Street property is zoned for residential use only.

“Assuming our growth continues, we have two choices as we see it,” Gifford wrote. “We can either convert the 30 Thadeus St. property in order to accommodate our growing storage needs, or we can look for property elsewhere.

“Given the size of the materials and equipment we use in our work, it is not economically feasible to have two separate properties to perform fabrication work and to store equipment and materials,” Gifford wrote. “In this case, we would likely move outside of South Portland to find a piece of property with sufficient size to support our growing needs.”

Given that fork in the road, Gifford appeared before the city council Feb. 27 to request a zoning change, asking that the Thadeus Street lot be moved from residential to non-residential industrial.

Although such a request generally starts with a public hearing before the planning board, prompting a board recommendation to the council, councilors within the past year have asked to vet projects in a workshop session first. A zoning amendment requires a supermajority of five council votes to pass, and there’s no sense in making anyone go through the public hearing process if there’s zero chance from the outset that the requisite number of councilors will support the change, they’ve noted.

Only one neighbor spoke at last week’s council workshop. Thaddeus Street resident Jared Libby voiced concern over an expansion of Fleming’s laydown yard, saying, “people don’t want to look at a junkyard.”

“I can very much appreciate that concern, because we have zoning for a reason,” said Councilor Kate Lewis.

Gifford, meanwhile, could not tell the council what his company’s exact plans are for the Thadeus Street lot.

“We haven’t pinned down exactly what we will do, because a lot if it hinges on what we can do,” he said.

However, Gifford did say one likely use for much of the lot might be office space, and he promised that fences and vegetative buffers would be put into place to shield any industrial use from view. At the suggestion of Councilor Eben Rose, Gifford said putting that promise directly into the deed for the property, which Rose said would prevent future company managers from changing their minds, was, “a good idea.”

Meanwhile, company President John “Scotty” Linscott IV said whatever Fleming does with the lot might be preferable to the most likely alternative use. Wedged between the Liberty Heights neighborhood, laid out in 1918, and the Pleasantdale Park development, created in 1909, the 30 Thadeus St. property spans 8.25 original house lots. Although it would take planning board approval as non-conforming lots of record, all eight lots could have homes built on them.

“So, there’s some protection of the neighborhood too, because we’re not adding five houses,” Linscott said, adding an additional promise that heavy equipment vehicles would always enter the lot from the current curb cut on Pleasant Avenue.

Although there is no guarantee it will approve any eventual zoning change request that crosses its desk, the city council did give its collective nod to H. B. Fleming taking the next step in the process.

“I’m fine with this. I know the planning board will iron out the details and the abutters will have plenty of opportunity to speak to their concerns,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling, who was on the planning board until his ascension to the council this past December.

City Planner Tex Haeuser said the planning board will indeed be “very particular” when reviewing the company’s formal proposal.

“This is a landmark South Portland business that’s doing real work in the real world, and not just pushing paper, so to speak,” Haeuser said. “That’s kind of a rare thing these days, and the question is how to make that work.”

“H.B. Fleming has been in the community a long, long time and we do value the fact that you are here and that you want to be here,” Mayor Linda Cohen told Gifford and Linscott, adding, “I hope this works out for you.”

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

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