Not in their back yard: Munjoy Hill neighbors fight development of secluded Portland property

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PORTLAND — An apartment building proposed for a small, empty lot behind North Street has set off opposition from neighbors, who believe the hard-to-reach courtyard could one day present a safety hazard.

The plan is still months away from appearing before city officials for final approval. But neighbors of Sumner Court, a narrow dirt path between 28 and 32 North St., which leads to a vacant lot behind houses on North Street and Cumberland Avenue, are steadfastly determined to stop it from happening.

Last Thursday, 20 people showed up at a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to show their opposition. Before the June 21 meeting, developer and barbecue-cart vendor Ron Gan said he thought the neighbors’ complaints were premature.

“This is a hearing that has more to do with the interpretation of what guidelines someone is allowed to build under,” Gan said, arguing concerns about safety and neighborhood issues were more suited for the site plan review process that would follow, if the ZBA ruled in his favor.

Gan went to the board to appeal a decision by city Zoning Administrator Marge Schmuckal. Gan owns several properties in the area, including a building on Cumberland Avenue that abuts the empty lot on Sumner Court, and a six-unit apartment building on Sumner Court.

Gan’s existing apartment building would be difficult to build today because it sits on a non-conforming lot; it was built prior to current city codes.

The empty lot is also non-conforming. Gan had hoped that a city rule to encourage housing development on lots under 10,000 square feet would allow him to build on the property, even though the lot measures more than 12,000 square feet.

Gan bought the land in 2003 under a common deed, but in 2007, an attorney issued a corrective deed stating that the property is actually two separate lots, the larger of which is roughly 8,000 square feet, and that he had intended to take separate titles for them at the time of purchase.

Schmuckal ruled that the land had historically been considered one lot, and that it did not meet the small-lot development requirements. On Thursday, the ZBA upheld Schmuckal’s decision.

But Gan had a second request ready, for a variance that would reduce the amount of street frontage required to build on his property from the standard 40 feet to 12 feet – the width of Sumner Court.

The proposal hinges on the idea that Gan owns Sumner Court. Gan has said he does and that his title research dating back to the late 1800s is proof. But on Thursday, neighbor John Carolan, owner of 28 North St., gave Gan and the board a copy of his deed, which explicitly states that he owns half of Sumner Court.

Neighbors assert that the city owns the other half of the dirt path, and a letter signed by 11 of them and given to the board claims “Mr. Gan has nothing more than a right of way to use Sumner Court to access his existing parking lot” on the empty land.

With the new evidence casting uncertainty on Gan’s title claim and the possibility that he would have to file a hardship variance to seek approval to build on a property with no street frontage, the board postponed hearing further arguments on the issue until Sept. 6.

Afterwards, Gan said he would continue to pursue options to find a way to build on the property, starting with clearing up the debate over the ownership of Sumner Court.

Neighbors said that they would continue to fight against it.

They said they are concerned about potential damage to their property if construction vehicles try to squeeze down the alley, and about reduced property values and quality of life in the densely populated neighborhood.

“That lot simply does not meet the necessary criteria,” to build, 26 North St. resident Devon Platte said. “It’s a fishbowl. It’s a doughnut hole,” access to which is made difficult because the width of Sumner Court is “a hard 12 feet,” bordered by a building and a brick wall, he said.

Platte and 32 North St. resident Doug Cowie said there are also safety concerns.

In the 1950s, a residential building burned down on the property where Gan now proposes to build. There is good reason why it was never replaced, Cowie said on Monday, shortly before he had to stand against the wall along Sumner Court to let a pick-up truck pass by with just a few feet of space.

“A ladder truck could not make the turn here,” he said. “If they need ladders for a fire, forget it. Unless they come running like the old days.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3446 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Doug Cowie waits for a vehicle to pass on Sumner Court in Portland on Monday. The small dirt road between 28 and 32 North St. on Munjoy Hill is at the heart of a neighborhood fight against a project proposed for a vacant lot at its end, with no other street frontage.