South Portland hopeful about resolving doughnut-shop zoning

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors Monday floated several ways to resolve neighborhood concerns about proposed zoning changes in Thornton Heights and the location of a new Main Street doughnut shop.

Although the operators of a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise continued to remain publicly silent, city officials and neighborhood representatives suggested there are signs an acceptable settlement is possible.

The zoning changes are intended to improve the Thornton Heights neighborhood and travel along Main Street.

As originally proposed, they would prohibit drive-throughs and 24-hour business operations along Main Street from Connell Street to Southwell Avenue. But revisions would allow such operations on the corner lot at Main and Westbrook streets.

By doing so, the proposed zoning amendments could facilitate the sale or lease of the city land at the intersection to Methuen, Mass.-based Cafua Management for a new Dunkin’ Donuts. 

The sale or long-term lease would be the city’s way of appeasing neighbors of the 75-year-old St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street, who were outraged when Cafua bought the church in December with the intent to tear it down and build a Dunkin’ Donuts. 

But last week at a Planning Board meeting, city officials were faced with deeded rights held by Congregation Bet Ha’am, the 81 Westbrook St. synagogue that has held the rights since December 2005. They include a 10-year right of first refusal to buy the Main Street corner property, plus buffering and parking easements.

At Monday’s council workshop, attended by more than 75 people, members of the congregation said they oppose leasing the property to Cafua, because any building more than a few stories tall could block sunlight strategically designed into the synagogue’s award-winning sanctuary space. 

As of now, Cafua is holding the church lot and continues to lease property nearby for an aging Dunkin’ Donuts. But city officials say, with existing zoning in place, it is entirely within the company’s rights to immediately request a demolition permit and begin construction of a 24-hour drive-through operation on the old church.

The divided city councilors discussed several potential work-arounds that could accommodate Thornton Heights residents, the synagogue and Cafua.

Because the city owns the lot, Mayor Jerry Jalbert explained, the city has “tremendous latitude” over land use restrictions. According to Jalbert, the city could add deeded restrictions to the corner lot that would permanently dictate the allowable height of buildings.

The restrictions would be added when sale or lease negotiations are being finalized, but would include the synagogue’s input, he said.

Fort Road resident Sharon Newman, a Bet Ha’am member and leader of the congregation’s bylaws committee, said Cafua and the city have already reached out to the synagogue in hopes of working together.

Though the currently proposed zoning changes would allow a building up to six stories tall, City Manager Jim Gailey said Cafua’s existing plans, though vague and preliminary, would not exceed two stories. 

Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, said she still wants the city to keep the corner lot as green space and invest in a public park, which was the implied use of the property when the congregation bought the adjoining property, formerly the Alice Sawyer School.

In a phone call Tuesday, Munderback said a deeded restriction on building height could put the congregation at ease. 

“One story would be preferable, because then we probably wouldn’t see it at all in our eyesight, but certainly 1.5 would be something to consider, so we’re very open to that,” she said.

Councilors also decided to take up the zoning changes to Thornton Heights and Main Street as separate agenda items in their meeting next week, so that the more urgent Main Street zoning proposal could begin making its way into law. Councilors indicated unanimous support for the Main Street changes. 

City Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett also suggested adding a provision into the new zoning laws that would make them “retroactively applicable” to any construction plans received after March 10. That would alleviate neighbors’ concern over Cafua’s rights to demolition and construction, although the company has not submitted any such plans. 

The council plans to have a formal first reading of the two zoning changes at its next meeting on Monday, May 5. Gailey said city staff would be prepared for the quick turnaround, and also emphasized that going forward with the zoning changes does not necessarily mean a Dunkin’ Donuts will go in either place.

“The City Council is going to have many bites at the apple in the months to come if this project moves forward, and authority over what the deed language will read,” Gailey said. “We have lots of safeguards in place.” 

When the synagogue’s deed restrictions expire at the end of 2015, city officials said, there could be the opportunity for a sale of the land, but any sale would still impose the deeded height restrictions. 

Although Cafua has remained publicly silent throughout the zoning change debate, Gailey said the company has been cooperative and is waiting for the city to straighten things out before it gets involved.

“As much as they’ve been vilified, they have been very patient,” Gailey said Tuesday. “For them to be sitting on a property when they really wanted to be on the ground in February, and waiting for the city to get things straight, that just goes to show their willingness to work with the city.”

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.