Challenge to Portland 'Motherhouse' project rejected by high court

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PORTLAND — A last-ditch effort to halt redevelopment of the former St. Joseph’s Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. was blocked Dec. 8 by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Andrew Mead, the court found the Portland City Council acted within its authority when it approved rezoning 7.5 acres to allow greater housing density.

“We conclude that the Council acted within its broad legislative authority and affirm the judgment,” the decision said about the change from an R-5 zone to an R-5A zone.

Justices upheld an April ruling by Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren. A pair of neighbors who call themselves Friends of the Motherhouse sued the city in October 2015.

The Motherhouse is the name commonly used for the convent. The Friends are neighborhood residents Barbara Weed and Raymond Foote, who were represented by Cape Elizabeth attorney David Lourie.

Joining the city’s defense were developers Sea Coast at Baxter Woods Associates, and Motherhouse Associates LP, who are principally developers Kevin Bunker, John Wasileski and Matt Teare.

The developers plan to convert the former convent into 88 units of senior housing, with 66 meeting affordable housing guidelines.

They also plan to build 161 market rate units targeted to residents 55 and older on land and playing fields now used by the Maine Girls’ Academy, formerly Catherine McAuley High School.

Supreme court justices heard the Friends’ appeal Nov. 10, when Lourie argued councilors overlooked specific zoning rules and that the new zone was “substantively inconsistent with the comprehensive plan’s goals and policies for the Deering Center/Stevens Avenue neighborhood.”

But the justices disagreed.

“Friends did not meet its burden to prove that the Council’s action rezoning part of the Motherhouse property to allow the development of senior housing – while retaining the high school and St. Catherine’s Hall in their original zone – was not in basic harmony with the comprehensive plan,” Mead wrote.

The developers have an agreement to buy 17.5 acres from Rhode Island-based St. Joseph’s Convent and Hospital. The Maine Girls’ Academy has been offered a 25-year lease, and the St. Catherine’s residence hall on Walton Street will remain in use.

Justices also found the requirement for contract zoning in a R-5A zone had already been deleted from the zoning ordinance and was not applicable to the comprehensive plan.

In spring 2015, redevelopment plans on the land drew objections from neighbors worried about the scope of the project and its impact on the neighborhood and adjacent Baxter Woods.

Before the council zoning vote, developers scaled plans back, eliminating 80 units from the new construction behind the convent.

“We are just looking forward to putting this behind us and carrying on with the important work of saving this building and adding to the affordable senior housing stock,” Bunker said Dec. 9. “I think when we’re done everybody will be happy with the result.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Redevelopment of the former St. Jospeh’s Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. and adjacent property in Portland can move forward following a Dec. 8 Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision upholding a city zoning change.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.