South Portland rezoning plan could save historic church but concerns synagogue

The Congregation Bet Ha'am synagogue in this April 2014 file photo.
Shelby Carignan | The Forecaster
The Congregation Bet Ha'am synagogue in this April 2014 file photo.
Posted May 08, 2014, at 4:40 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors gave preliminary approval Monday to zoning changes that could facilitate construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts on city-owned land at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets.

The proposed Thornton Heights commercial zone, which includes the city-owned parcel at Westbrook and Main streets, would allow drive-throughs, 24-hour business operations and six-story buildings. It passed on first reading 5-2, with Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith opposed.

A Main Street commercial zone proposal, which includes the former St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street and purposely prohibits 24-hour operations and drive-throughs, passed unanimously.

Zoning changes to the two areas have been partially dictated by the city’s desire to sell or lease the land at Westbrook and Main to Cafua Management for a new Dunkin’ Donuts, while avoiding demolition of the church, which Cafua acquired last December.

The only other option for Cafua would be to tear down the church and replace it with a Dunkin’ Donuts, a scenario opposed by many residents.

But transfer of the Westbrook-Main property to Cafua is opposed by the nearby Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue, which has a right of first refusal on the land until 2016.

The congregation believes the property should be maintained as green space. Members also are concerned that height restrictions in the new zone are insufficient to prevent a new, nearby building from disrupting the sunlight that streams into their award-winning sanctuary.

For the past few weeks, city officials have been working with Cafua, residents of Thornton Heights and the synagogue to negotiate the sale or long-term lease of the land at Westbrook and Main streets, and in a workshop last week considered placing deeded height restrictions on the parcel.

City legal counsel Sally Daggett also suggested making the changes to the Main Street zone retroactive, which would effectively limit Cafua’s options.

The five councilors who voted in support of the Thornton Heights zone indicated those two safeguards, in addition to zoning design standards that say building size “should be sensitive to adjacent scales,” should be enough to put synagogue congregants at ease.

“There’s language built right into the ordinance that in my mind addresses this lot specifically,” Councilor Melissa Linscott said. “All of those things we can take into consideration and come up with a good compromise.”

But Smith echoed the concerns of several synagogue representatives, who questioned the lack of specificity in the design standards and the uncertainty of the council’s promise of deeded restrictions.

Design standards are new for South Portland and only exist in Knightville and Willard Square, Planning Director Tex Haeuser said. The planning board determines whether a proposed site plan meets the standards.

“I wish they were more specific, that’s why I’m picking on it,” Smith said. “[Design standards] sound great, but I don’t know how to determine sensitivity.”

Synagogue members at the meeting stood firm in their preference that the council reconsider the Thornton Heights zone separately from the Main Street zone, and invest in the green space.

“Of course times change, I understand that, but it’s only because there’s never been any investment in [the green space] that it’s been underutilized,” Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, told the council.

In his research on the deeded right to first refusal given to the congregation in 2005, City Manager Jim Gailey said the city is not locked into keeping the space open.

“It’s important to know it does give the city wiggle room,” he said.

Mayor Jerry Jalbert said he hopes to meet with Cafua and representatives from the synagogue before the council takes final action on May 19.

Jalbert also noted that both new zones will address the proliferation of low-priced motels on Main Street that generate frequent police and EMS calls.

He said most motels on Main Street have struggled due to a “failed business model.” Jalbert hopes to provide incentives to motel owners to convert their properties into apartments, with increased height and density requirements, or for them to sell the properties to owners who will make changes.

But units in new apartments must meet design standards, be at least 600 square feet and have housekeeping facilities necessary to accommodate single families, requirements that the dwellings often fail to meet.

He said that the changes will work to address the “tremendous human tragedy” seen at these motels, specifically concerning illegal drugs and prostitution.

“We’re responsible as elected leaders to do something about this,” he said.

 

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