Portland councilor seeks building ban to protect Munjoy Hill vista

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PORTLAND — Development proposed next to a Munjoy Hill park could be placed on hold by the City Council.

District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray announced at the Oct. 5 council meeting she will seek a 60-day moratorium “on any and all development proposals” for property next to Fort Sumner Park.

“It is a relatively short time span; I believe it is ample time for us to look at this and see what we might need to do to protect and preserve our natural spaces,” Ray said.

She would like the moratorium passed as an emergency at the council’s next meeting on Oct. 17. A a public hearing will precede a council vote.

Fort Sumner Park, off North Street, offers a panoramic view north and west of the city from a ridge above Sheridan Street.

While no formal applications or site plans have been filed in City Hall, developers working with Bernie Saulnier are interested in building 34 condominium units on land next to the park at 153-165 Sheridan St.

On Oct. 7, attorney Patrick Venne, who has been working with Saulnier, said a moratorium is unnecessary.

“Councilor Ray wants a moratorium to address feelings of open space (in addition to considering only the effect on views) but moratoria are, legally speaking, extreme measures typically reserved for rare circumstances where there is an immediate threat to public welfare,” Venne said.

In an Oct. 6 letter to Mayor Ethan Strimling and city councilors, Venne said revised condominium plans have reduced the area of the top two floors of the proposed six-story building, thus “limiting the vista impact to a mere 1.25 percent at worst.”

The potential development on land now owned by the Westbrook-based McCartney Family LLC has been a source of contention for two months.

Ray said Tuesday the moratorium would allow councilors to consider amending R6 zoning, which applies to the site, or beef up Planning Board requirements to consider how private development impacts adjacent public land and views.

The Sheridan Street properties are zoned to allow a building that is 45 feet tall, or about four stories. However, the measurement is based on the median height measured from the four corners of the property, and the four stories could become six.

Ray and Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization President Jay Norris have complimented developers for listening to the community, but Norris said he and neighbors are embracing a “zero-tolerance” policy about impeding any park views.

Ray said Saulnier and his team have been “incredibly cooperative,” but did not agree with Venne’s perspective on new designs.

“The way they are looking at it is different from the way other people are looking at the view,” she said. “I would encourage anyone looking at the moratorium to go up to the park. There still is significant impact to the park with this iteration.”

In his letter, Venne said original plans could have blocked about 40 percent of the northern view from the park.

“Painstaking efforts have been made to adjust the project’s design in response to community and staff feedback,” Venne said.

He added that developers have discussed financial agreements with the city to cap the building’s height, with “$1.5 million for the whole site, or air rights covering top floors for an undetermined number.”

Two petitions that seek action to preserve the park were presented to the council, and the city Historic Preservation Board has been urged to make the park a historic landmark.

On Monday, the MHNO passed a resolution endorsing historic and landmark protections for the park that would deny any permit request that would “degrade or compromise the current sweeping vista from Fort Sumner Park on the grounds it will have an undue adverse effect on the scenic and natural beauty of the area.” 

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

Visitors enjoy the Oct. 6 sunset at Fort Sumner Park on Munjoy Hill in Portland. City Councilor Belinda Ray said she will introduce a construction moratorium to preserve park views.

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.