South Portland council takes Thornton Heights zoning change off the table

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city has all but ended the year-long debate over rezoning that would have increased commercial density and building heights in the residential Thornton Heights neighborhood.

Since early 2014, the proposal to change Thornton Heights to a split commercial zone along Main Street has been discussed at more than five Planning Board and City Council meetings and workshops. 

But the plan, which could have allowed an existing Dunkin’ Donuts to build a new drive-through restaurant on city-owned land along Westbrook Street near the Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue, was indefinitely tabled on Dec. 8 – even though the latest variation excluded the 2.3 acres of open space at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets.

“The language before you and the map before you this evening has the Main Street, Westbrook Street city-owned property removed out of this zoning,” Planning Director Tex Haeuser told the council Dec. 8. “So, we are leaving that parcel alone; it is going to still to remain split between the limited business district and the residential A, and the (Thornton Heights Commercial) zone is not proposed for that parcel anymore.”

The remaining proposed Thornton Heights Commercial zone included “the more neighborhood part” of Thornton Heights and runs adjacent to the Highway Commercial Services area, Haeuser said, which was recently extended east along a railroad right-of-way.

“It’s an area that can be developed without a lot of existing impacts on the existing residents, and it has this potential for a station on the Amtrak line,” Haeuser said. 

Since 2010, the city of South Portland has lost value, he said. “If we can’t maintain or grow the tax base, either we’re cutting services or we’re increasing taxes.”

Citing objectives in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Haeuser advised the council to consider business and job creation, the need to maintain population and demographic diversity, and climate-smart growth.

In order to fulfill the best interest of the city, incentives for redevelopment and increasing density is a must, Haeuser said. In the case of the proposed  Thornton Heights Commercial zone, he continued, the city can achieve this by “offering very generous density and height limits coupled with some very stringent design standards and abutter protections.”

According to Haeuser, the Thornton Heights Commercial zone would lead to creation of a “mixed-use residential and commercial hub” that would “better serve the neighborhood and Route 1 travelers;” “attract investment by reinforcing Water Resource Protection’s sewer separation project streetscape improvements,” and address “negative trends in the area around motels and hotels.”

The proposal would have allowed 36 dwelling units per acre; a 70-foot maximum height, or six stories, for buildings; restaurant drive-throughs, and the likely zoning extension to railroad tracks to create the possibility of a future Amtrak train station. 

“With the good highway access and possible future rail access, it could pave the way for operations like movie theaters, water parks and a convention facility to move into the new zone,” Haeuser told councilors.  

But councilors expressed general opposition.

“What motivates this? Why are we coming up with zones in our community that increase density a great deal? … It’s not coming from the people,” Councilor Tom Blake said. 

For every place of the Comprehensive Plan that appears to usher growth and development, Blake said, “I could show you two places that say the opposite.”

Nowhere in the Comprehensive Plan “does it say we should take this area and come up with 80-foot buildings and 36 units per area. It just doesn’t say that,” Blake said.

Characteristics that are always high on the list for South Portland residents are “walkable streets, livable neighborhoods, quality of life, recreation, parks, open space – that’s what people want most,” he said. 

Further, councilors saw no need for the proposed zoning changes. 

“I’m not sure the need is really there. I do think we should think about redevelopment and how to incentivize redevelopment in certain places that need it,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “I do understand redevelopment. We can’t just be static, we need to move forward as a community, but I think thoughtfully in a way that, maybe we have transitional zones where we can do it in a better way.”

The problem that should be addressed before others, Councilor Claude Morgan said, are the recurring issues with hotels and motels in the area that have become notorious for an increase of emergency and police calls.

“I think if you wanted to do right by Thornton Heights, I would say put this plan on the back burner and address the problems of the … hotels right away,” Morgan said.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.