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South Portland synagogue objects to city's offer to lease land to Dunkin' Donuts

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South Portland synagogue objects to city's offer to lease land to Dunkin' Donuts

SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials were hopeful that rezoning the corner at Westbrook and Main streets for a new Dunkin' Donuts would prevent demolition of a nearby church and resolve conflicts with residents in the Thornton Heights neighborhood.

But they now face resistance from congregants of a nearby synagogue.

As part of ongoing updates to the city Comprehensive Plan, the Planning Board on Tuesday recommended the City Council adopt zoning changes to commercial land in Thornton Heights and on Main Street. The vote was 4-1, with board member Fred Hagan dissenting and Chairman William Laidley absent.

In the Main Street Community Commercial Zone, changes would prohibit restaurants from staying open 24 hours a day. The recommended amendments also include a previously proposed ban on drive-through facilities in the zone. The Thornton Heights zone would now allow drive-through windows and 24-hour food establishments, and include the land at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets.

St. John the Evangelist Church and its former school on Aspen Avenue are in the Main Street zone. They were purchased by Methuen, Mass.-based Cafua Management last December. The company, which leases property nearby for an aging Dunkin' Donuts, planned to tear down the 75-year-old church and replace it with a new Dunkin' Donuts.

The Main Street zoning changes will render that plan mostly unworkable, a potential victory for nearby residents who for months have pleaded and worked with the city to avoid the construction of a 24-hour fast-food establishment in their neighborhood. 

As an alternative, Cafua, which operates about 200 Dunkin' Donuts franchises throughout New England and upstate New York, has been negotiating a long-term lease for the 2.3 acres of city land at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets, which is in the Thornton Heights zone.

The new zoning proposed Tuesday would allow the Dunkin' Donuts, and a building height of up to six stories, or 70 feet. 

But Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha'am, said that isn't acceptable to the synagogue, which sits at the other end of the block at 81 Westbrook St.

Munderback said Tuesday that the congregation offered to buy the adjoining corner parcel from the city in 2005, but councilors said they wanted to keep the land for a future city park.

The council then deeded the congregation three rights to the property: buffer effacement, use of the lot for overflow parking, and most importantly, a right to first refusal if the city ever decided to sell the land. 

Leasing the property to Cafua effectively negates the synagogue's right to first refusal, Munderback said. She also said any building more than a few stories tall could block sunlight strategically designed into the synagogue's award-winning sanctuary space. 

"We believe that any zoning should retain this green space, not just for the synagogue, but for entire community," Munderback told the board, speaking on behalf of more than two dozen members of the congregation who attended the meeting. "It's one of few (parks) on our side of the city, and could be a beautiful park for all the enjoy, as was the plan back in 2005."

Equally upset residents who live near the church reiterated their concerns, too.

"I do understand your concerns for your churches, I absolutely understand that, but you’re not there 24/7 to deal with that 24-hour drive-through," Gloria Carter, of Aspen Avenue, said.

Several residents urged the board to approach Cafua with other options that would please all parties, but Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the decision, ultimately, is Cafua's.

"It's not as if there aren’t plenty of other properties in the city that Dunkin' Donuts could go if they wanted to," Haeuser said. "There’s really zero indication that they have any interest in anywhere other than St. John's church or the (Main-Westbrook) corner. We don’t have much control."

Board member Rob Schreiber added that "the city is responding to the concerns of a neighborhood and trying to figure out a solution. We’re not trying to do anything special for any particular company. Someone bought some property and they’ve already got the rights."

Whether Cafua and the city agree to a lease, or if the company decides to pursue its original plan for the church property, Haeuser assured residents that Planning Board approval will be needed – although a proposal could be before the board as soon as May 13. 

Other less contentious changes in zoning will address what Haeuser called "negative trends" in nearby businesses that he said attract police activity, such as prohibiting 24-hour check-cashing and pawn shops, and investing in streetscaping that city officials feel has worked well in Knightville. 

Board members encouraged concerned residents to reach out to their city councilors, who will discuss the proposed zoning changes in a workshop April 28 and will eventually have final say in the changes. 

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