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South Portland council split on zoning for Thornton Heights

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South Portland council split on zoning for Thornton Heights

SOUTH PORTLAND — A preliminary site plan for a new Dunkin' Donuts at Westbrook and Main streets dominated discussion at Monday's City Council workshop Monday while indicating councilors are split on the needed zoning vote coming June 16.

The council considered options for the new Thornton Heights Commercial zone to accommodate the needs of Congregation Bet Ha’am, a synagogue adjacent to the city-owned corner lot, as well as Massachusetts-based Cafua Managment, which seeks to build a Dunkin’ Donuts on the lot.

Procedurally, the council must take up the zoning in its next meeting, and need five votes to pass the changes. But Monday they seemed far from a consensus on how to move forward.

"I don't think anyone knows what the end results are going to be, it's a mystery at this point if there’s going to be five votes for anything," Mayor Jerry Jalbert said Wednesday. 

There are a wide range of options, Jalbert said. They could, for example, send the zone to the Planning Board, amend it to take the parcel out, pass the zone or reject it altogether.

"This one's a toss up," he said. 

The city originally proposed selling or leasing its 2.3 acre lot at Westbrook and Main streets to Cafua as an alternative after  the company bought the former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St. and neighbors worried about the future of the church.

Cafua currently leases space for its existing Dunkin’ Donuts at 633 Main St., but had hoped to leave the aging building, raze the church and build a new restaurant with a drive-through window.

Since zoning along Main Street, as part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, passed to prevent drive-throughs and 24-hour operations, the city and Cafua have set sights on the empty corner on the edge of the proposed THC zone that would allow 24-hour drive-throughs for development.

But congregants and nearby residents alike have expressed in city meetings their overwhelming preference for the lot to remain green space or become a park, which at one point was the city’s intention.

At the very least, the city and congregants hoped to work out deeded height restrictions and easements on the lot to ensure any development would not block sunlight to the synagogue’s award-winning sanctuary space.

Hope was still alive Monday evening for the city to potentially exclude the corner lot from the THC zone, or to split it in half.

But a design plan presented by City Manager Jim Gailey and  Cafua executive Greg Nolan seemed finalized, causing some councilors to question whether their opinions on keeping the space empty were moot.

“I feel very uncomfortable talking about any (site plans) this evening,” Councilor Tom Blake, who has voted with Councilors Patti Smith and Michael Pock in favor of keeping the space green, argued Monday. “This proves the point that we’re putting the cart before the horse.”

The rough sketch would effectively split the lot in half between paved areas for the building, parking and drive-through, with a sizeable green space separated by trees. But heavy traffic along Broadway would require an exit and entrance “throat” higher up Westbrook Street that could creep up into the green space and mostly isolate it from view, a feature that concerned many residents at the meeting.

Nolan defended his company, and assured his engineer could take neighbors' concerns into consideration to make the green space bigger.

“I’ve heard a lot of voices today; we may be a large organization, but we provide a lot of local jobs, we give to a lot of local charities,” Nolan said.

Deed restrictions on the land are still a possibility, but will be considered separately from the zoning.

The council will take action on the zoning at their next meeting, Monday, June 16.

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