Planners bristle at council request for more public hearings on Willard Square

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SOUTH PORTLAND — If the City Council wants more public input on proposed changes to zoning rules in Willard Square, they can conduct hearings themselves.

That was the message sent Tuesday by the Planning Board, whose members were defiant in the face of a new charge from councilors to once again revisit a contentious proposal to change rules about first-floor usage in the mixed-use neighborhood.

City councilors last week gave final approval on a package of zoning amendments for the Village Commercial zone at Willard Square, but not before removing a portion of the amendment that would have allowed residential use on the first-floor of properties in the zone and sending the issue back to the planning board for more public input.

Planning board members stood up for their own process Tuesday, deciding they would not hold any more comment sessions of their own, but would reiterate their recommendation and pass on the task of inviting residents to comment on the change — if it comes up again — to the city council.

Board members cited a desire to move on, and said they had already heard residents’ opinions on the issue during the many public comment sessions held while they crafted the zoning amendment.

“We had a lot of public input on this issue,” said planning board member Paul McKee. “I’m not sure how much they want. … In my opinion, we already did this.”

The planning board was charged earlier this summer with examining the current zoning and making recommendations for changes to design standards, parking, traffic and safety issues. City councilors, namely Councilor Tom Coward, said on Sept. 19 that the change to the first-floor usage rule was not part of that charge.

Planning Director Tex Haeuser said whether usage was part of the charge was a matter of interpretation.

Planning board member Gerard Jalbert agreed, saying usage came up in the context of the charge during the very first meeting the board held about Willard Square.

“We had a lot of people say, which seems to be obvious, that if you encourage more business rather than more residential (use), you’d have more traffic and more parking issues,” Jalbert said. “There was public input on this, and that’s the major reason that the very first draft had the removal of the prohibition.”

The item was again open for public discussion later in the process, once when a proposal was sent to the council with the prohibition intact, and again when the proposal that removed it was moved forward.

Initially, many of the planning board members indicated they would reluctantly go along with the council’s wishes. But the more they talked, the more resolute they became.

“We did do this, and we worked really hard,” said Rob Schreiber. “… We’ve already covered it.”

“I would never vote out of felling hostage to the councilors,” McKee said.

“We already got a lot of input,” said member Susan Hasson. “That’s why we gave this recommendation.”

The only planning board member to show reluctance for the decision to hold their ground without more public comment was Curt Jensch. He said he was worried that some councilors would use the board’s refusal to hold more hearings on their own as an excuse not to adopt the change.

“It’s sort of a strange thing,” he said. “They may get the wrong message. That’s my conundrum.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Senior housing project gets final OK

SOUTH PORTLAND — A 44-unit expansion of the Ridgeland Estates senior housing complex was granted site plan approval at Tuesday’s meeting of the Planning Board.

The review was stalled two weeks ago by planning board members wary of deciding on-the-fly whether a site plan review was as stringent as a review for subdivision, a question sprung on the board by the developer, South Portland Housing Authority.

“We did look at this issue and were a little chagrined to find, as I should have remembered, that we’ve actually done this three times before for similar projects,” said Planning Director Tex Haeuser at Tuesday’s meeting.

The $4.5 million project, dubbed Ridgeland Gardens, will be a separate building from the current facility, but will utilize the same driveway off Ridgeland Avenue.

Some residents of Ridgeland Avenue complained that additional housing would mean more traffic congestion and noise from emergency vehicles on their street unless another driveway was constructed on Huntress Avenue, closer to the new building, where an emergency entrance will be located.

Thomas Greer, the developer’s engineer, said it was important to limit access to the facility because of security concerns, and because they didn’t want their property to become a thruway from Ridgeland Avenue to Huntress Avenue.

“The issue of traffic flow is one sticking point,” said Planning Board member Curt Jensch. “But the argument for not creating a cut-through is in my mind more persuasive than the argument against creating a small amount more traffic.”

Ultimately, the site plan was unanimously approved as submitted.

—Mario Moretto