SOUTH PORTLAND — The city could be faced with a new proposal next week when the Planning Board reopens discussion about rezoning green space in Thornton Heights.
In a meeting hosted Wednesday night by Congregation Bet Ha’am, which abuts the property at Westbrook and Main streets, neighborhood residents and synagogue members who oppose a proposed rezoning of the property discussed asking the city to transfer stewardship of the parcel to the South Portland Land Trust.
Doing so would maintain the city’s ownership, but give the trust authority to approve or deny any disposition of the 2.3-acre property.
The Planning Board on Tuesday, July 8, is scheduled to reconsider zoning changes that would have allowed commercial development of the open space – in particular, construction of a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through by Cafua Management, a Massachusetts company that operates an aging Dunkin’ Donuts nearby at 633 Main St.
Cafua last year purchased the former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St. and hoped to put the new doughnut shop there, until neighbors protested and the city rezoned the property to prevent that kind of development.
The city planned to rezone the Westbrook-Main property at the same time, but the City Council, faced with stiff opposition from the synagogue and residents of the Thornton Heights neighborhood, last month sent that proposal back to the Planning Department for more work.
“At some level it’s out of our hands, but we do have the ability to influence that decision,” Rabbi Jared Saks told the two dozen people at Wednesday’s meeting.
Synagogue member Jamie Broder said the group opposed to the new Dunkin’ Donuts needs to be sure to voice their opinions to city Planning Director Tex Haueser and the City Council if they want to stop the development.
“From (Haueser’s) perspective we’re not relevant,” Broder said. “We need to make ourselves relevant.”
Broder suggested that if the issue didn’t involve a national franchise, the space might have a better chance of staying as it is.
“If (the green space) wasn’t involved in a debate involving Dunkin’ Donuts, what would (Haueser) do as planner? Put it between two zones? Make it a park?” Broder said.
Some people suggested asking the council to turn the space into a park, while others mentioned a community garden.
But former City Council and Mayor Rosemarie DeAngelis said in order to convince the council, the group has to stay focused on what it wants – and what it wants is an undeveloped open space.
“It doesn’t matter what they do with it as long as it stays an open space,” DeAngelis said. “If nothing ever happens to it and it stays as it is, we don’t lose anything. It just needs to stay undeveloped.”
Aside from being frustrated by the situation, some people in attendance at the meeting also questioned how selling the lot to Cafua is even a possibility the council would consider.
“It’s open space and it needs to stay open space. Who’s heard of a city trying to sell open space? It doesn’t make sense,” attorney Natalie West said.
DeAngelis agreed, saying it’s not clear why the council is helping Cafua.
“It’s not the council’s job to decide where Cafua gets to put a 24-hour store,” DeAngelis said. “That’s not their problem.”
Broder, who led the meeting, eventually recommended the plan to ask the city to respect the green space and sell the development rights to the South Portland Land Trust. That way, he said, the city would still own the land, but any decision it wanted to make about the space would have to go through the trust.
DeAngelis said she thinks the space can be kept open as long as the group remains determined.
“Stay focused on it being an open space,” DeAngelis said. “Don’t try and fix any other problem or we will lose this fight.”