March 21, 2019
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Does court ruling against Portland in church rezone case bode ill for $150 million Midtown project?

PORTLAND, Maine — How does the proposed conversion of a historic Portland church to serve as a business headquarters compare to a plan to build four 165-foot towers elsewhere in the city?

Developers behind the latter project — the multiphased, $150 million complex ultimately intended to bring 700,000 square feet of residential space, 100,000 square feet of retail space and 1,100 garage parking spots — say it doesn’t.

Opponents of the four-tower Midtown project, however, insist a recent Superior Court decision overturning the Portland City Council’s rezone of the 19th century Williston-West Church bodes well for their efforts to block the big Bayside proposal.

Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled late last month that city councilors erred in 2012 when they voted to allow Australian businessman Frank Monsour to renovate the former church to serve as the American home base for his company, Majella Global Technologies.

The church building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, sits in a dense residential neighborhood in Portland’s West End. Some neighbors of the 32 Thomas St. church argued that allowing 2,800 square feet of the parish house to be converted into office space for 14 Majella employees, as Monsour proposed, would be too far out of sync with the R-4 residential zone there.

Wheeler agreed, taking the side of a group of 12 residents who sued to challenge the rezone.

Peter Monro, co-founder of the group Keep Portland Livable, which opposes the Midtown project, said that should serve as a warning for city councilors, who already have approved zoning waivers for the four-tower proposal, including one allowing a building to exceed the 85-foot height limitation in that spot.

“[The] court decision in favor of Portland residents who complained that the city of Portland violated the comprehensive plan and zoning process sends an important message to city officials regarding several projects, including Midtown,” Monro said in a statement issued Monday. “It’s clear that the city continues to make arbitrary and inconsistent decisions in favor of development while ignoring not only the concerns of taxpayers and residents but also the planning process and its own regulations.”

Gary Vogel — an attorney representing The Federated Cos., the Florida-based group behind the Midtown project — said Tuesday that, unlike Monsour’s project, his clients are proposing to build primarily in Bayside’s B-7 business zone, which accommodates mixed uses and tall buildings.

The first phase of the Midtown project — one tower and a nearby 75-foot-tall parking garage — is due to be voted on by the Planning Board next Tuesday.

“The Williston-West case is very different from the minor zoning changes in the B-7 zone that enable the Midtown project,” Vogel wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “Williston West involved a conditional or contract rezoning of a church in a residential zone. It is largely limited to its unusual factual situation.

“If we were dealing with a structure in a residential zone that needed to be repurposed in order to develop a beneficial use, that case would be instructive,” he continued. “For Midtown, however, the decision should be viewed to recognize that in cases involving minor zoning adjustments made to a zone to support uses that are intended for the zone, and that the comprehensive plan seeks to encourage, those changes if well supported, as they were here, should have no problem showing consistency with the comprehensive plan.”

In his reaction to the Williston-West ruling, Monro noted that the city previously lost a series of legal battles over a petition to block the controversial sale of the publicly owned Congress Square Park to private hotel developers. He said the legal losing streak is a foreboding sign for city officials.

“The city was wrong in its decisions about Congress Square. It was wrong in approving a rezone for the Williston-West Church. And we believe it will make the same mistake if the city approves the Midtown project in Bayside,” Monro said. “When is the city going to start listening to its residents instead of large, out-of-state developers whose interest is only in their bottom line, not in ensuring that Portland remains a special community where people can live, work and raise a family?”

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