Divided South Portland council OKs revised Willard Square zoning changes

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors approved a set of zoning ordinance changes meant to address design and parking concerns in the Willard Square neighborhood.

But not before significant changes were scrapped at the last minute.

A change that would have removed an existing prohibition on residences on the first floors of the dozen buildings in the zone was removed because three of the seven councilors – Tom Coward, Jim Hughes and Tom Blake – said they would block the entire package unless the prohibition was left intact.

“If we do not put this language back in, the ordinance will not pass this evening, and we’ll have to go back to square one and start at zero,” Blake told the other councilors.

With five votes needed to enact zoning changes, rather than the usual majority of four, the dissenting councilors were able to force the issue. Councilors voted to send the question of first-floor usage back to the Planning Board for public discussion.

“I’m very disappointed in my fellow councilors,” Councilor Alan Livingston said. He said he was upset that the first-floor restriction was removed, despite the expertise of the planning director and other city officials who supported allowing the change.

Coward, who spoke against the change, said his only goal in removing the text from the amendment was to “permit and encourage public participation in the process.”

He also said that issue was not in the original charge to the Planning Board, which included only questions of design standards, parking and traffic safety. The traffic issue was left out of this round of zoning amendments to give the Planning Department more time to come up with a proposal based on a traffic study conducted this summer.

Several councilors indicated they believed the will of the residents would ultimately be to let property owners decide how to use their first floors, but said they weren’t going to pass the rule change allowing that until public input is received.

“This is what happens when clarity of purpose in the beginning of a process isn’t flowed through,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “On the positive side, the public has yet another shot to shape this process.”

The City Council and Planning Board have both had public comment sessions regarding the zoning changes at Willard Square. Planning Director Tex Haeuser, who remained silent during Monday’s meeting, has said previously that public feedback was one of the reasons the prohibition was removed in the first place.

The zoning ordinance as passed included design and parking rules changes, including a prohibition on certain building materials; a process for design review; revised rules governing the number of parking spaces needed for new development, and a provision setting up incentives to protect “trees of community significance.”

Changes suggested, but ultimately not passed, include a requirement that commercial developers install bicycle racks and a provision requiring front-facing egress from parking lots on Thompson Street.

A moratorium was enacted in June to allow the city to address Willard Square residents’ zoning concerns after two developers unsuccesfully attempted to build a European-style market and cafe.

Those developers have since decided to seek approval for their business in Knightville.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.