Last-minute request delays South Portland senior housing project

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Until this week it was smooth sailing for the South Portland Housing Authority’s plan to expand the Ridgeland Estates apartment complex.

But on Tuesday, during site plan review, the project ran into trouble.

The $4.5 million expansion would create a second complex, called Ridgeland Gardens, off Huntress Avenue. The new building would contain 44 units of elderly and handicapped housing, and would be connected by a driveway and footpaths to the existing Ridgeland property.

Tom Greer, a civil engineer working on the project, said the developers had met with neighbors and were able to strike an agreement. Indeed, neighbors who spoke to the Planning Board all supported to project.

“We think we’re a good fit for the neighborhood,” Greer said.

But a last-minute request for additional language in the site plan approval took the Planning Board by surprise. It meant a plan that could have received a quick nod, since the Planning Department staff recommended approval, ended up being tabled until the next meeting.

After the developer presented the site plan, Gary Vogel, the South Portland Housing Authority’s attorney, alerted the Planning Board that the SPHA was seeking more than just site plan approval for the housing project.

“I apologize, I shouldn’t be springing this on you now,” Vogel said.  He said banks required the developer obtain either subdivision approval or an indication from the Planning Board that the site plan review process was at least as stringent as a subdivision review.

The site plan review before the Planning Board did not call for a subdivision, and members of the board were visibly uneasy about tacking it on.

City Planner Stephen Puleo said he was hesitant to grant subdivision approval because state law would have required notification in area newspapers of a subdivision hearing. Puleo said the board could give preliminary subdivision approval and grant final approval of subdivision and site plan on Sept. 27, at the next meeting.

Planning Board member Rob Schreiber said he was uncomfortable with the whole process. He said he didn’t want to add more approvals to the text without the city attorney, Sally Daggett, present.

“I’m not a lawyer,” Schreiber said. “I’m not comfortable with this at all.”

But Puleo and Planning Director Tex Haeuser both said subdivision approval is unnecessary, and that they could move forward with the second option.

“This is a technical consideration, not a legal  one,” Haeuser said.”I’m prepared to stipulate this process is as stringent as subdivision.” 

After about an hour of conversation, Vogel told the Planning Board the developers would be willing to return at the Sept. 27 meeting with the additional language. He said this would give Haeuser and Puleo time to determine whether the approval could be granted as requested.

It also would give the developer time to come up with more detailed financial plans requested by board member Jerry Jalbert. 

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