South Portland planners defer to council on Thornton Heights green space

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Although the green space at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets was taken out of the proposed new Thornton Heights Commercial Zone, it remained at the center of discussion during the Planning Board’s latest review of the zone.

Faced with plans for a new Dunkin’ Donuts on the land, and opposition from a nearby synagogue, the City Council removed the city-owned property at Westbrook and Main from the proposed zone on June 16. They sent the remainder of the zone back to the Planning Board for another recommendation.

With the controversial corner cut out, the board Tuesday reviewed the zone’s proposed setback requirements and considered removing residential areas from the zone.

Members recommended the council accept the THC zone without the corner lot, but suggested special consideration for requests from residents, specifically from those living on Memory Lane and in Kingswood Park, who want to be excluded from the zone. 

According to correspondence from City Manager Jim Gailey on Wednesday, the city property in question “is not being addressed at this time” and he “will be looking for guidance from the City Council on next steps.”

Many members of the public were disappointed the Planning Board did not discuss or make recommendations about what the city should do with the corner lot.

Unless the city gives some sort of direction on this issue, Sharon Newman, a city resident and member of nearby Congregation Bet Ha’am, told the board, “I think it’s going to be a thorn in the City Council’s side in perpetuity.” 

The zoning changes are part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan for Thornton Heights, established in 2012, to improve traffic patterns, address “negative trends” at Main Street-area motels generating frequent police activity, and encourage mixed land use in the commercial and residential neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Cafua Management, a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee, has been trying for months to secure a lease or sale agreement to build a new drive-through doughnut shop on the empty lot. The company bought and originally planned to raze and build on the former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., to replace its aging leased store at nearby 633 Main St. 

The city stepped in before that could happen, and at the request of concerned neighbors of the church, offered to help the company find an alternative location. They landed upon the 2.3-acre city-owned green space.

But the plan was met with strong opposition from nearby residents and members of Congregation Bet Ha’am, who believe the area next to their award-winning sanctuary space should remain a green space or become a park. 

The congregation also has a right of first refusal to acquire the lot until 2016.

After more than 10 meetings and workshops discussing the parcel throughout the spring, the City Council remained split on the issue.

Residents and synagogue members floated the idea of having the South Portland Land Trust acquire the green space in a meeting at the synagogue last week. In an email to the Planning Board, the land trust urged board members to support protecting the open space.

Planning Director Tex Haeuser explained several times during the meeting Tuesday that the City Council only charged the board with making a recommendation about the THC zone, which no longer includes the green space.

Haueser said an item about the green space would come before the board only “if the City Council wants to do something different with the zoning” or for a recommendation on a sale. If the city works out a lease agreement with Cafua under the current zoning of the lot, which is split between Residential A and Limited Business zones, plans would not have to be submitted to the Planning Board, he said.

The City Council on Monday, July 14, is expected to schedule a workshop on the THC zone.

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