South Portland council wants more work on Willard Square construction rules

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors are poised to extend a moratorium on new construction in Willard Square to allow more time to hash out proposed changes to rules governing development in the neighborhood.

On Monday, Planning Director Tex Haeuser presented proposals to address concerns raised earlier this year when a plan to open a European-style eatery at 7 Pillsbury St. ignited the passions of residents worried about density, traffic, pedestrian safety and design standards.

The moratorium was enacted June 6 to give the city breathing room to address the residents’ concerns. It expires Sept. 9, but Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said the council will extend it through Sept. 20.

“There was a general feeling that everyone liked the work that had been done,” De Angelis said. “But there are things we need to look at further.”

The biggest changes proposed Monday included a parking rule that would effectively require businesses to provide more off-street parking; a requirement that parking off-street parking on Thompson Street be configured to allow cars to exit without backing out, and a reduction in the number of off-street parking spots developers would be required to create in exchange for protecting “trees of community significance.”

In addition to the parking changes, the proposed ordinance amendment also increases the front-yard setback requirement from 0 feet to 5 feet, and side and rear setbacks from 0 feet to 6 feet or a 10-foot driveway. If a building abuts a residential property that is more than 30 feet tall, the side and rear setbacks would increase to 50 percent of the building’s height.

The Planning Department also recommended a series of design standards to guide the aesthetics of construction in so-called “Neighborhood Activity Centers.” The laundry list of design rules is intended to stabilize and reinforce property values; preserve the natural, historical and architectural qualities of the neighborhood; and establish aesthetic and architectural compatibility.

While the ordinance states that “architectural style is not restricted,” and that “evaluation of the appearance of a project shall be based on the quality of its design and relationship to surroundings,” the proposal does include rules, restrictions and prohibitions on signs, landscaping and building materials.

The design standards rubbed some councilors the wrong way.

“The problem with the Willard Square area is there isn’t any consistency in design,” Councilor Tom Coward in an interview after the meeting. “There are buildings from every period in every style.”

Councilor Jim Hughes also said he wanted to address the list of prohibited building materials, calling the list a too inclusive by featuring material such as asphalt shingles.

Haeuser, the planning director, said he’d revisit the design standards and clarify the language about designating “trees of community significance,” which he said also attracted some councilors’ attention. There also will be a general tightening of the language in the ordinance before the councilors look at it again, Haeuser said.

The Planning Department was charged with revising the zoning amendments in advance of the next workshop on Aug. 22.

Traffic in the square

Councilors on Monday also got a look at a traffic analysis of Willard Square conducted by DeLucca Hoffman Associates.

According to the analysis, there have been only four traffic accidents, none of which involved pedestrians, in the area since February 2003. While safety was apparently not a concern, Public Engineer Steve Bushey’s analysis included several suggestions for easing congestion and increasing efficiency of traffic flow.

But many of the suggestions include hefty price tags, Haeuser said in a memo. He also wrote that more resident input should be sought before moving forward with changes to the traffic flow in Willard Square.

For that reason, the Planning Board made no recommendations regarding traffic. The council also tabled the issue until after the zoning changes are settled.

“There are things we need to look at in terms of traffic,” De Angelis said. “But that’s a bigger issue, and it’s going to take more time.”

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