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Council signals support for South Portland zoning changes, despite synagogue opposition

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Council signals support for South Portland zoning changes, despite synagogue opposition

SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors gave preliminary approval Monday to zoning changes that could facilitate construction of a Dunkin' Donuts on city-owned land at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets. 

The council also showed unanimous support for residency restrictions on registered sex offenders.

The proposed Thornton Heights commercial zone, which includes the city-owned parcel at Westbrook and Main streets, would allow drive-throughs, 24-hour business operations and six-story buildings. It passed on first reading 5-2, with Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith opposed.

A Main Street commercial zone proposal, which includes the former St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street and purposely prohibits 24-hour operations and drive-throughs, passed unanimously. 

Zoning changes to the two areas have been partially dictated by the city's desire to sell or lease the land at Westbrook and Main to Cafua Management for a new Dunkin' Donuts, while avoiding demolition of the church, which Cafua acquired last December.

The only other current option for Cafua would be tearing down the church and replacing it with a Dunkin' Donuts, a scenario opposed by many residents.

But transfer of the Westbrook-Main property to Cafua is opposed by the nearby Congregation Bet Ha'am synagogue, which has a right of first refusal on the land until 2016.

The congregation believes the property should be maintained as green space. Members are also concerned that height restrictions in the new zone are insufficient to prevent a new, nearby building from disrupting the sunlight that streams into their award-winning sanctuary. 

For the past few weeks, city officials have been working with Cafua, residents of Thornton Heights, and the synagogue to negotiate the sale or long-term lease of the land at Westbrook and Main streets, and in a workshop last week considered placing deeded height restrictions on the parcel

City legal counsel Sally Daggett also suggested making the changes to the Main Street zone retroactive, which would effectively limit Cafua's options.

The five councilors who voted in support of the Thornton Heights zone indicated those two safeguards, in addition to zoning design standards that say building size  "should be sensitive to adjacent scales," should be enough to put synagogue congregants at ease. 

"There's language built right into the ordinance that in my mind addresses this lot specifically," Councilor Melissa Linscott said. "All of those things we can take into consideration and come up with a good compromise."

But Smith echoed the concerns of several synagogue representatives, who questioned the lack of specificity in the design standards and the uncertainty of the council's promise of deeded restrictions.

Design standards are new for South Portland; they only currently exist in Knightville and Willard Square, Planning Director Tex Haeuser said. The Planning Board determines whether a proposed site plan meets the standards.

"I wish they were more specific, that's why I'm picking on it," Smith said. "(Design standards) sound great, but I don't know how to determine sensitivity."

Synagogue members at the meeting stood firm in their preference that the council reconsider the Thornton Heights zone separately from the Main Street zone, and invest in the green space. 

"Of course times change, I understand that, but it's only because there's never been any investment in (the green space) that it's been underutilized," Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha'am, told the council.

In his research on the deeded right to first refusal given to the congregation in 2005, City Manager Jim Gailey said the city is not locked into keeping the space open.

"It's important to know it does give the city wiggle room," he said.

Mayor Jerry Jalbert said he hopes to meet with Cafua and representatives from the synagogue before the council takes final action on May 19.

Jalbert also noted that both new zones will address the proliferation of low-priced motels on Main Street that generate frequent police and EMS calls. 

He said most motels on Main Street have struggled due to a "failed business model." Jalbert hopes to provide incentives to motel owners to convert their properties into apartments, with increased height and density requirements, or for them to sell the properties to owners who will make changes.

But units in new apartments must meet design standards, be at least 600 square feet and have housekeeping facilities necessary to accommodate single families, requirements that the current dwellings often fail to meet. 

He said that the changes will work to address the "tremendous human tragedy" seen at these motels, specifically concerning illegal drugs and prostitution.

"We're responsible as elected leaders to do something about this," he said.

Sex offender restrictions

The proposed restrictions on residency would prevent registered sex offenders from living within 750 feet of public and private schools, parks and recreation centers.

The restrictions would pertain to sex offenders convicted of Class A, B or C crimes against children under age 14. Jalbert said the city has 10 registered sex offenders listed as residents, and another 16 who work or go to school in the city. A map attached to the ordinance outlined restrictions around 28 locations in the city.

"There’s been and will continue to be debate as to the effectiveness of residency restrictions, but it can't be disputed that if a sex offender reoffends, the question is always asked, could we have done more?," Police Chief Edward Googins told the council.

Gailey said there has been no official communication about the proposed restrictions between the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the city. No residents at the meeting opposed the ordinance, which will be up for final approval on May 19.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.