Portland Co. gets zoning change; referendum challenge looms

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday approved a zoning change for the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St.

But the 7-2 council vote may not clear the way for redevelopment of the 10-acre property. A neighborhood group opposed to the rezoning is collecting signatures for a citizen’s initiative referendum question that could block the project.

Developer Jim Brady, and partners Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello, asked for the zoning changes to allow mixed uses, including housing. They believe the ordinance sought by the group, which calls itself Save the Soul of Portland, would kill the plan.

“If the referendum passes, the project is dead and these buildings would continue to deteriorate,” Brady said May 28.

The shift of 10 acres of Portland Co. and state-owned land between Fore Street and Casco Bay to mixed use B-6 and waterfront zones passed with opposition from Councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue.

It was  unanimously recommended by the Planning Board in February, and amended Monday to ensure housing constructed there will be subject to future “inclusionary” zoning that creates housing priced for people earning at or just above the area median income.

Councilors rejected an amendment to use the floodplain as a base measurement for building heights, which could have prevented new construction on the upper end of Fore Street from rising above grade level.

The votes came after a three hour public hearing where opponents said development could ruin views seen as a public benefit.

“I’m here because of the thousands of us who go up and down that street everyday and see that view and get a lift,” neighborhood resident Peter Murray said.

Supporters urged the council to give the developers a chance to reuse the historic property they bought from Phineas Sprague Jr. in 2013.

“I am tired of seeing opportunity come to this city and pass us by,” Olympia Street resident Mark Reilly said.

Save the Soul of Portland spokeswoman Anne Rand last week said the move to amend Chapter 14 of the city code is needed because city government is not listening to its citizens.

“For me, this is going to be a first step, we have to hold our City Council a little more accountable,” Rand said.

The signature drive began just after Memorial Day. The group needs to submit 1,500 signatures of registered city voters by July 6 in order to put the question on the Nov. 3 ballot, City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said May 28.

Rand said the group would like to gather as many as 2,500 signatures, in case some are disqualified. Volunteers are working in neighborhoods and will be at the June 20 Pride Parade and the farmers markets at Monument Square and Deering Oaks Park.

Once certified by City Clerk Kathleen Jones, the ordinance petition would be forwarded to the City Council for a public hearing. Councilors could enact the ordinance, or place it on the ballot.

If passed, the ordinance would be retroactive to May 19, which precedes City Council votes the zoning change requested by Brady, and another sought by Sea Coast Management Co.

Sea Coast wants to redevelop the 19 acres now occupied by Catherine McAuley High School and the former St. Joseph Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. Councilors held a first reading of that zoning request to increase housing density Monday.

Because it is a citizen’s initiative, the ordinance revisions also could not be amended by the City Council for five years.

The ordinance would create a new Scenic Viewpoint Protection Zone, a task force to inventory property that could be included in the zone, and require people seeking zoning changes for development purposes to provide more detailed plans.

The protection zones would be based on “highly distinctive scenic viewpoints within the City of Portland.” The first such viewpoint is the southern sidewalk on Fore Street between Waterville and Atlantic streets, to protect a view “at pedestrian heights, when viewed at any height between four (4) and six (6) feet above said sidewalk.”

That view overlooks the Portland Co. land, and is the primary reason Save the Soul of Portland opposes the zoning change sought by Brady. It would prevent construction above the Fore Street grade as it ascends to the Eastern Promenade.

The scoring method for determining scenic viewpoints is taken from a 2008 “Scenic Assessment Handbook” issued by the former state Planning Office, which contains a scorecard created by Yarmouth-based architect Terrence Dewan.

The scorecard utilizes seven scoring categories and considers any area scoring 36 points or more to be “highly distinctive.”

On May 21, attorney Barbara Vestal said the views over Portland Co. land are “off the charts” using the scorecard.

The task force would be comprised of one member each from the City Council, Planning Board, Historic Preservation Board, Portland Development Corp. and Land Bank Task Force, as well as eight people representing the public at large.

All would be appointed by the mayor within 60 days, with the at-large members representing each council district and having backgrounds including architecture, economics, biology and natural sciences.

The task force would then inventory property that could be included as part of a Scenic Viewpoint Protection Overlay Zone, and present its findings to the Planning Board, which would then forward them to the City Council with recommendations.

The third element of the ordinance changes requires more detail from developers seeking zoning changes to provide “such features as buildings, parking, driveways, walkways, landscape and property boundaries.”

Details would not have to reach final site plan specifications, but “should be sufficiently detailed and complete so as to allow an assessment of the relationship of the proposed development to City land use objectives.”

Rand said Save the Soul of Portland is not anti-development, or even opposed to some redevelopment at the Portland Co., which was once home to an industrial complex supplying locomotives and rolling stock to the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad.

“Our problem is with City Hall (is) they should expect a little more from a developer before they grant a zone change,” Rand said.

Kevin Bunker, a partner in the proposed project to add 330 housing units on the Stevens Avenue land now owned by Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Community, was also critical of the proposed referendum.

“It appears to be almost unlimited in scope and could block just about any conceivable development any person wanted to stop,” he said. “I understand neighbor concerns on the one hand, but this looks to be a giant step backward for Portland, and one I can’t help but think the citizens will have the good sense to reject.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Developer Jim Brady, on efforts to prevent building heights from exceeding the grade of Fore Street on portions of the Portland Co. complex: “If the referendum passes, the project is dead and these buildings would continue to deteriorate.”

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.