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South Portland neighbors worried about what comes after Thornton Heights church

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South Portland neighbors worried about what comes after Thornton Heights church

SOUTH PORTLAND — A private meeting is scheduled Thursday between some Thornton Heights residents and a Massachusetts-based owner of Dunkin' Donuts franchises that wants to redevelop St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St.

On Tuesday, city Planning Director Tex Haueser said city officials have been approached about the church property by representatives of the company, Cafua Management.

Officials at Methuen, Mass.-based Cafua, which owns Dunkin' Donuts franchises in seven states – including an existing franchise at nearby 633 Main St. – did not return calls about the potential acquisition or their redevelopment plans.

Jon Jennings, the city economic development director, on Monday said he helped set up Thursday's meeting, but will not be able to attend because it coincides with a meeting of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee.

Jennings and Monsignor Michael Henchal, who oversees the parish cluster of church properties in Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, said last week there is an agreement to sell the church property and buildings, but they declined to identify the potential buyer.

No permit applications have been filed at the city Planning Office, Haueser said, but the prospect of a new restaurant in the footprint of the church is troubling to some neighbors because of the potential traffic impact.

"I am not against the restaurant or church sale," Thirlmere Avenue resident Brian Frost said Tuesday.

But because the restaurant is so heavily dependent on drive-through customers, Frost said he is concerned about added vehicle traffic in the neighborhood, and has suggested an alternative that would involve a land swap.

The city owns a parcel of land at 25 Westbrook St., near the corner of Main Street adjacent to the Dunkin' Donuts. Frost suggested it could be swapped for church land in the residential area bordered by Thirlmere and Aspen avenues.

The land is also seen as a potential staging area for the utility and Main Street reconfiguration work coming to Thornton Heights over the next several years.

Haueser said some of the initial discussions with Cafua centered on preserving the church, built around 1940 and closed in September.

Frost added he was unhappy the church redevelopment idea may have existed for months without residents being aware of what was discussed.

“I believe (the meeting) should have happened five months ago," he said, noting a council executive session was held in June about the church. On Tuesday, Mayor Tom Blake confirmed the session occurred.

The church, built when the city population was expanding during World War II, had endured declines in parishioners and was recommended for closure by a parish committee last January.

The South Portland Food Cupboard has used the church basement for more than 12 years, and will move to a new location at 130 Thadeus St. early next month.

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