Munjoy Hill zoning rewrite gets initial OK from Portland councilors

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PORTLAND — As he pulled dandelions from his yard on May 17, Chris Coose shared some thoughts about redevelopment on Munjoy Hill.

“They ought to save the buildings with bones,” he said.

Saving those buildings and ensuring new ones are in character with the neighborhood form the core of new zoning regulations that received a first reading at Monday’s City Council meeting.

The proposed Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Overlay Conservation District will get a public hearing before councilors vote June 4. The zoning changes affect the R-6 zone on Munjoy Hill, now governed by temporary zoning rules and a moratorium on demolitions. Those both expire June 5.

The proposed rules and zoning map, which were unanimously recommended for passage by the city Planning Board on May 8, would have to be passed on an emergency basis to take effect immediately.

A Munjoy Hill resident since 1972, Coose’s side yard borders a building at 25 Monument St., which will soon be torn down and replaced by a five-unit building. Site plans for new construction were approved April 24, and the home was not affected by the demolition ban since a permit was acquired before the ban went into effect Dec. 4, 2017.

If passed by councilors, the new rules will make demolitions for buildings that have not been deemed a public safety hazard more difficult, with as much as an 18-month waiting period after a permit application has been filed.

What replaces a razed building will also change. Proposed permanent rules will limit building heights and the footprint on a property with required setbacks. There would be a 45-foot height cap on buildings with three or more units, including rooftop accessories.

One- and two-unit buildings are capped at 35 feet. Exceptions are made for rooftop items, including chimneys or heating and air conditioning systems that are out of view from the street and incorporated into the building design.

The height caps are for lots of at least 2,000 square feet and also apply to buildings featuring at least one unit of workforce housing.

“The key to mitigating the scale impact of these taller buildings is in their form and the amount of open space buffer around the mass,” city Senior Planner Christine Grimando said in a May 11 memo to councilors.

The new zoning re-incorporates temporary rules about first-floor units with street frontage and how to place off-street parking, while adding the possibility of an alternative design that would be reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

The conservation district extends the breadth of the neighborhood from east of Washington Avenue and Mountfort Street to the Eastern Promenade. The district also stretches from Fore Street to the East End Community School area on North Street.

Coose said he has been out of town during the months the new zoning was drafted and reviewed at neighborhood meetings and the Planning Board. While enjoying the mix of styles in the neighborhood, he has experience renovating older houses and prefers renovation to tearing down buildings that are not a community hazard.

“You have to have a sense of aesthetics and romance,” he said.

The proposed new rules would update changes made to the R-6 zone in 2015, which city Planning Director Jeff Levine has said were intended to create more affordable housing.

The rules were changed in R-6 zones throughout the city, but on Munjoy Hill led to more buildings getting torn down and, by the city’s measurement, no new affordable units were part of the new construction.

Plans to tear down the building at 25 Monument St. and one at 24 St. Lawrence St. spurred neighbors, including Maggy Wolf and former City Council candidate Paula Agopian and to push for greater restrictions on demolition and design.

The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, where Agopian is vice president, and the Munjoy Hill Conservation Collaborative have endorsed the zoning changes.

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

New zoning rules for Munjoy Hill will seek to preserve older architecture while ensuring new construction like this at Howard and Turner streets is a better fit for the neighborhood.

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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.