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South Portland environmentalists to oppose condo project

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South Portland environmentalists to oppose condo project

SOUTH PORTLAND — Environmentalists who came together to stop the development of Sawyer Marsh several years ago are getting back together in an effort to prevent development of a wooded parcel southeast of Wilkinson Woods.

Residents Keith Bellas and Michelle Bennington are marshaling opponents for a May 12 Planning Board meeting, where a Scarborough developer is asking for a zone change that would allow 29 duplexes to be built on 17 acres of land behind Kingswood Park Condominiums on Main Street.

Bellas said in an e-mail that he considers Wilkinson Woods "South Portland's premiere, and unfortunately last, remaining wetlands." The wooded West End parcel between Route 1 and the Scarborough connector is also a habitat for deer, wild turkeys, old pine trees, hardwood and wild flowers, he said. 

"It's a large part of the (Nonesuch River) watershed," Bellas said. 

Community Planner Steve Puleo said that about 11,000 square feet of wetlands would be impacted by the development planned by JDR Trust II, which is owned by Gavin Ruotolo.

Although the development would not require wetland mitigation to be mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection, it would be subject to the new local wetland ordinance. Puleo estimated the developer would have to pay the city between $40,000 to $80,000 for wetland alterations. 

Puleo said additional fees would be assessed for any impacts to wetland buffers. "It's not an insignificant amount of money," he said. 

The prospect of money could put the Conservation Commission in a bind. Residents are asking the commission to oppose the project, but the group would ultimately benefit from the revenue, which is earmarked for preservation of open space.

Although the City Council ultimately decides where to spend the money, the Conservation Commission – in concert with the city's Water Resource Protection Department – is responsible for recommending environmental projects to the council.  

On May 12, the Planning Board will consider a zone change that would allow 59 townhouse units to be built on about 17 acres of land. There would be two units in each building and the units would be sold to retirees who are 55 or older. 

In addition to rezoning the vacant parcel, the applicant is also proposing to rezone the Kingswood Park Condominium complex, which was built in the 1970s and is nonconforming by today's standards. 

However, Bellas argues that Ruotolo traded the right to build on the land in the 1970s as a concession to allow the 128-unit Kingswood condos to be built. He accused the developer of "double dipping." But Puleo said staff have not found any evidence that density was traded and, if it was, that it was traded in a legally binding way. 

"There's no evidence we've seen in this saying there has been a transfer of development rights," Puleo said.  "It would have to be played out in the courts. It's going to be very difficult to prove."

Puleo said the applicant has signaled a desire to work with local environmental groups, like the South Portland Land Trust and the West End Trails Committee, to provide public access to open space. The developer also seems willing to allow West End Trails to connect Wilkinson Park to the Eastern Trail Connector via a trail along the Nonesuch River.

But it's unclear how that willingness would be affected by a legal challenge to development rights. Ruotolo, who was in Florida this week, could not be reached for comment.

Tuesday's Planning Board meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers of City Hall, 25 Cottage Road. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net