High court to hear appeal of Stevens Avenue zoning in Portland

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PORTLAND — The zoning change needed to build new housing at the former St. Joseph’s Convent on Stevens Avenue will be challenged Nov. 10 before Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.

A group called Friends of the Motherhouse, spearheaded by residents Raymond Foote and Barbara Weed, is fighting to block 250 housing units planned on 7.5 acres. The group claims city councilors improperly approved a zoning change to allow higher density housing on the land.

“The Superior Court failed to appreciate the sweeping nature of the inconsistent changes wrought by the Amendments,” attorney David Lourie said in a June 27 complaint asking justices to overturn a ruling last year by Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren.

The plaintiffs argue the zoning change was inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and any amendment to the existing R-5 zone should have been approved as a specific contract zone containing conditions for development. 

Referred to as the “Motherhouse,” the former convent is to be converted to 88 housing units by developers Motherhouse Associates and Sea Coast at Baxter Woods. Developers also plan to build 161 units targeted to residents 55 and older behind the convent.

City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and attorneys representing developers Kevin Bunker, John Wasileski and Matt Teare have countered the plaintiff’s supreme court arguments in much the same way as the Superior Court complaint.

“This appeal is based on a misreading of the city’s Comprehensive Plan and is easily recognized as such even after a cursory review of the relevant language in that Plan,” West-Chuhta said in a July 25 court filing.

The Comprehensive Plan, which is now getting updated and lacks state certification, is a multi-part document each side has cited to uphold its argument about goals for residential development and how zoning changes must be made.

The state Growth Management Act requires zoning to be consistent with any municipal comprehensive plan, a standard Lourie admitted was low. 

Without following mandated procedures based on sections on pages 67, 71 and 72 in the plan’s first volume, Lourie said “municipalities will continue to willy-nilly change their growth management ordinances every time a developer proposes a seductive new project.”

Attorneys Natalie Burns and Mark Bower, who represent the developers, disputed Lourie’s argument as intervenors in the case.

“The short answer to plaintiffs’ arguments is that Portland’s Comprehensive Plan does not require any rezoning to R-5A be accomplished only through conditional or contract zoning,” they said.

West-Chuhta, Burns and Bower also noted Comprehensive Plan paragraphs citing the need for higher density housing along major transportation routes while disputing the requirement for a contract zone.

Developers are almost ready to close on the purchase of 17.5 acres now owned by Rhode Island-based St. Joseph’s Convent and Hospital, Teare said Oct. 26. The land also includes the former Catherine McAuley High School, now known as The Maine Girls’ Academy. The school will remain open at the site, although housing will be built over some athletic fields.

The development process has been contentious, and led developers to scale back original plans by 80 units before the zoning vote. Friends of the Motherhouse filed suit in Cumberland County Superior Court a year ago. Efforts to mediate the dispute failed.

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

If the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upholds the zoning, the former St. Josephs Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. in Portland, seen Oct. 27, will become 88 housing units.

Plans to develop housing on at 605 Stevens Ave. remain on hold as neighbors appeal the zoning approval to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

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.