Disputed Thornton Heights zoning goes 'back to the drawing board' in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors Monday removed a city-owned lot at Westbrook and Main streets from a proposed new Thornton Heights zone, sending plans for the zone and a potential Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner back to the Planning Board. 

The decision was a victory for members of Congregation Bet Ha’am on Westbrook Street, who have opposed zoning changes that could have facilitated sale or lease of the property adjacent to their synagogue for the new Dunkin’ Donuts.

“We’re thankful it’s going back to the drawing board,” Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am said in an interview Tuesday. “But the question is, will the Planning Board keep (the lot) entirely out?”

The City Council considered zoning changes to Thornton Heights and Main Street as part of ongoing long-term adjustments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The changes address high police activity at Main Street-area motels, introduce design standards, and simplify traffic patterns.

Councilors generally agree the new Thornton Heights Commercial Zone would make positive and necessary changes to the neighborhood. But they remain divided on what should happen with the 2.3-acre corner lot, which sits inside the edge of the proposed zone, and at the center of an ongoing debate over a new Dunkin’ Donuts. 

Disputes began last winter when Cafua Management, the Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee, purchased the former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., with plans to raze it for a new doughnut shop that would replace space Cafua has leased for decades at nearby 633 Main St.

When neighbors of the church opposed Cafua’s plans, the city stepped in and offered to sell or lease the business the city-owned undeveloped property at Main and Westbrook streets as an alternative, pending new zoning.

The corner lot is split between a limited business zone, which permits drive-throughs and 24-hour operations, and a residential zone. The proposed new THC Zone would have included the entire lot up to the synagogue, and allowed drive-throughs, 24-hour operations and buildings up to six stories.

Congregation Bet Ha’am and several nearby homeowners oppose the new THC zone entirely because they believe the individual lot in question should remain green space or become a park, as the city historically intended.

Congregants are especially concerned that any development over two stories tall on the empty property would disrupt sunlight that streams into their award-winning sanctuary. 

The congregation also has a right of first refusal to acquire the lot until 2016.

In a late May meeting, councilors were unable to get the necessary five votes in favor of the new THC Zone because it would include the entire corner lot. Councilor Michael Pock later brought the zone up for reconsideration, and in their most recent workshop, the council considered site plans for a Dunkin’ Donuts from Cafua that would retain a small green space.

But on Monday, Councilor Maxine Beecher offered an amendment to the zone to finally exclude the contentious parcel, and every councilor supported it. 

Now, the THC Zone goes back to the Planning Board for reconsideration of how much, if any, of the corner parcel should be kept in the zone. The board will also tweak language on setbacks.

But more importantly, councilors have slowed the Dunkin’ Donuts construction process while no longer holding back progress on the rest of the zone.

“This is really about community, and right now we need to do things that help us be less divisive,” Beecher said. 

Beecher, Councilors Melissa Linscott, Linda Cohen and Mayor Jerry Jalbert had previously voted in favor of the zone. But after the controversy that developed, and in light of continuing concerns about the Main Street-area motels, they all decided to back away from the plan.

Councilors Patti Smith and Tom Blake, who have strongly opposed Cafua’s development at either Main Street site, were pleased to see the sale process slow down.

“It’s been a difficult issue, but only because information has come out at different stages throughout the process,” Smith said. 

Because the council voted to send the zone back to the Planning Board, there was no public discussion Monday. 

The THC Zone, with the corner parcel removed, will go before the Planning Board for new recommendations on July 8. Pending a positive response, the City Council could consider the zoning changes again in their meeting July 21 and take final action on Aug. 4. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.