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Editor's Notebook: Zoning decision is a gut check for South Portland City Council

Opinion

Editor's Notebook: Zoning decision is a gut check for South Portland City Council

If the South Portland City Council were batting .500 as a baseball team, its performance would be outstanding.

But .500 isn't good enough on a pair of proposed zoning revisions now before the elected officials.

Councilors endorsed the provisions last week, sending both of them to second and final votes on May 19.

One change would tighten zoning regulations along part of Main Street and effectively prevent the former St. John the Evangelist Church from being torn down and replaced by a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts with a drive-through. Councilors hit that one out of the park, with a unanimous vote to maintain neighborhood peace and quiet.

But they whiffed on the second proposal.

By a 5-2 vote, with Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith opposed, they endorsed new Thornton Heights zoning that would allow the doughnut shop and drive-through – and a building of up to six stories – on what is now green space along Westbrook Street near the corner of Main Street, within eye- and ear-shot of the city's only synagogue.

For the record, I'm a member of the synagogue, Congregation Bet Ha'am. And I'm no fan of the developer, Cafua Management. The Massachusetts-based Dunkin' Donuts franchisee doesn't talk to the press, seems to favor demolition of historic buildings (as The Forecaster's David Harry reported last December), and banned The Forecaster from its five South Portland, Portland and Scarborough shops after the company's pursuit of St. John's became front-page local news.

I'm also a resident of South Portland who wants to see the City Council show its priorities are in order, by approving the Main Street changes while sending the Thornton Heights proposal back to the drawing board.

The decision is complicated, because some church neighbors believe St. John's will come tumbling down and be replaced by a Dunkin' Donuts if the city doesn't pave the way for Cafua to build instead on Westbrook Street, around the corner from the aging doughnut shop it operates in a leased building.

But there's no reason for that fear.

Councilors have said they are confident they can make the tighter Main Street rules retroactive to a point in time sufficient to block Cafua's plans for the church. And the city attorney, Sally Daggett, last week told them it's unlikely Cafua could successfully claim in court that it would be injured by a retroactive change, since it has nothing to lose: the company hasn't done anything but let St. John's continue to deteriorate.

That leaves the Westbrook Street property, where a rush to pass the new Thornton Heights zoning will not only take a chunk out of the neighborhood, which will lose valuable green space, but will be a slap at Congregation Bet Ha'am, which offered to buy the property from the city 10 years ago and maintain the green space, but was turned down.

Instead, the deed given to the synagogue when it bought the former Alice Sawyer School included a 10-year right of first refusal to buy the neighboring property.

Because the synagogue option expires next year, the city believes it has what City Manager Jim Gailey last week called "an out" and "wiggle room": it can appease neighbors of the church, and keep Cafua happy, by offering the company the Westbrook Street property. Would that involve a short-term lease, followed by a sale – after the synagogue's option expires?

Just the terms "wiggle room" and "an out" should be enough to alert anyone that the city's strategy is less than benevolent. 

There is no denying the residents near St. John's don't deserve a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts drive-through in their midst. But there should also be no denying the members of Congregation Bet Ha'am, who have invested millions of dollars in the Thornton Heights neighborhood and built a sunlight-drenched sanctuary acclaimed as one of the 50 most "stunning" in the world, should not be told to endure an intrusion of noise, light and trash – and possibly be asked to worship in the shadow of a six-story building – because the city values a doughnut shop's contribution to the economy more than it values the synagogue's contribution to quality of life.

Councilors have said the city has "design standards" to ensure a Cafua project will be compatible with the neighborhood, and suggested the deed restrictions could include setbacks and buffers to protect the synagogue.

But the "design standards" are vaguely written, and subject to interpretation by whoever happens to be on the Planning Board at any given time. They offer no long-term protection.

And deed restrictions, while offering long-term protection, must still be negotiated with a potential buyer. And that buyer would be Cafua. A drive-through Dunkin' Donuts would be all but guaranteed on Westbrook Street.

If the City Council really wants to protect the interest of residents near St. John's, as well as the members of Congregation Bet Ha'am, it will approve the Main Street zoning changes, and send the Thornton Heights proposal back for revisions that remove the Westbrook Street property from the new Thornton Heights zone.

If that dunks Cafua's plans, so be it. At least the council, and the city, will be batting a thousand.