PORTLAND, Maine — A Cumberland County justice ruled in favor of the redevelopment of a former convent after neighbors of the property sued to block the project.
In a summary judgment filed this month, Maine Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren essentially tossed out the lawsuit, which had argued that the city last year illegally approved a zoning change to allow developers to turn the so-called Motherhouse property on Stevens Avenue into an 88-unit senior housing facility. The redevelopment would include another 161 housing units on the campus in newly constructed buildings.
The lawsuit had frustrated city officials and local business leaders, who called it an obstructionist move against a developer who had bent over backward to accommodate neighborhood input. But the area residents behind the suit, including Barbara Weed and Raymond Foote, described the project’s approval as another example of city leaders being tone deaf to constituent concerns, and being willing to trample a neighborhood’s character in pursuit of development.
Attorney David Lourie, who represented the group of neighbors, known as Friends of the Motherhouse, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
The neighbors argued the city’s Planning Board and City Council were wrong to approve the project in 2015 because it bucked the city’s comprehensive plan, a wide-ranging municipal document that provides development guidelines and is legally enforceable.
The case dives deep into the world of city zoning minutiae. The opponents argued, in part, the proposal ran afoul of a provision in the comprehensive plan, which they said requires planned residential use projects to be approved through conditional or contract zoning processes.
Simply stated, those are measures the city can use to allow developers to go beyond the height or density limits, for instance, in a particular zone because of special circumstances.
So instead of asking the city for an exception that would let them build more units in the zone than the zone would normally allow, the developers, Sea Coast at Baxter Woods Associates, sought a change in the zoning for a portion of the property to allow more units, which the city approved.
But Warren said the project’s opponents were reading the comprehensive plan too strictly, and ruled that while the document allows for planned residential use developments to be implemented through conditional or contract zoning, it doesn’t demand it.
Further, Warren found the project meets other goals set forth in the comprehensive plan, such as those seeking to update zoning to encourage higher density housing, increase senior housing and “find productive uses for vacant and underutilized lots.”
“We’re thrilled to see the council’s decision to rezone the property was upheld and considered to be consistent with the comprehensive plan,” city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in a statement Friday afternoon.
The case comes against the backdrop of what’s been a near constant battle over development in Portland, with several projects in recent years ending up in court. The proposed redevelopment of the historic Williston-West Church into the home headquarters for an Australian businessman’s software company went all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2014, while another lawsuit over the proposed mixed-use Midtown project in the Bayside neighborhood ended later that year when developers agreed to downsize.
A dispute over whether opponents could challenge the proposed sale and redevelopment of the publicly owned Congress Square made its way to the state’s highest court, while another citizen’s petition drive forced a citywide vote last fall on how the historic Portland Company complex might be redeveloped.
Sea Coast entered into a purchase and sale agreement for the total 17.5-acre Stevens Avenue property from the Catholic religious order that long owned it, the Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community, in 2014. The property also includes Catherine McAuley High School, a private girls’ school that is undergoing a separation from its religious sponsors. The high school will continue to lease back its space from Sea Coast and isn’t included in the 7.5-acre area that was rezoned.