Portland, residents begin mediation on Stevens Avenue zoning

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PORTLAND — A lawsuit against the city over a Stevens Avenue zoning change heads to court-ordered mediation on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, David Lourie, was pessimistic about a resolution being reached outside a courtroom.

“I think it is very clear mediation is not going to work,” Lourie said Tuesday. “The problem is with the process with the city. The plaintiffs feel like the city violated its own rules.”

Friends of the Motherhouse and specifically residents Raymond Foote and Barbara Weed, sued the city Oct. 22, 2015, in Cumberland County Superior Court, after the City Council approved a zoning change at 605 Stevens Ave. last July.

The change allows Sea Coast Management Co. to move forward with plans to construct 250 housing units marketed to buyers and renters who are 55 and older. The development would include almost 90 affordable housing units inside the historic former St. Joseph’s convent.

The complaint alleges city councilors did not follow procedures for future land use outlined in the second volume of the city Comprehensive Plan and the associated zoning map for the 12-acre parcel.

The plaintiffs argue the Comp Plan requires the city to use “contract zoning” for “planned residential unit developments” of the type approved on the land now owned by the Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Community.

Contract zoning applies more specific applications for land use to a particular parcel, city Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said Monday. It is a practice that has been used less frequently, he said, because changes in the economy and market can affect long-range plans for property.

Sea Coast and its principal owners, Matt Teare and John Wasileski, have a an agreement to buy the property, and a partnership with Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative.

Last year, councilors approved zoning and maps to change the Stevens Avenue property, and another on Ocean Avenue, from R-5 to R-5a zones to increase the allowable population density. The lawsuit has also stalled work on the 802 Ocean Ave. project, which would add 150 units of senior housing.

Bunker on Monday said the developers are eager for the mediation.

He said he hopes to start the convent conversion in June. The rest of the development on land that was used by Catherine McAuley High School is subject to master plan and site plan reviews by the city Planning Board.

Neighbors have objected to the aesthetics of planned multi-story buildings and the possible increases in traffic.

Councilors first postponed a vote on the zoning changes while urging the developers and neighbors to meet again to seek a compromise. Sea Coast eventually scaled back the project by eliminating 85 housing units proposed for a field behind the convent. 

City Manager Jon Jennings on Monday said the lawsuit is “a truly unfortunate situation,” adding the zoning process was carried out thoroughly and publicly by the Planning Board and City Council.

“Hopefully there will be a way to move forward in an expeditious manner,” he said.

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

Mediation begins Wednesday, Feb. 3, in a lawsuit filed by neighbors to block zoning changes approved last July to allow redevelopment of the former St. Jospeh’s Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. in Portland.

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.