South Portland Planning Board backs zoning change for affordable housing project in Thornton Heights

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Planning Board on Wednesday recommended the City Council re-zone a section of Thornton Heights to accommodate a proposed $9 million affordable housing project.

The board, serving in an advisory role to the council, voted unanimously to recommend the conditional zoning amendment for 611 Main St. – the former St. John the Evangelist Church property – based on its compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the proposed South Portland Housing Authority project may be the catalyst to spur growth in the neighborhood.

The City Council will make the final decision on the zoning amendment. If it is approved, the project will return to the Planning Board for site plan review.

To allow the 42-unit development with three additional house lots, the agency wants the city to rezone the rear acre of the property, which is in a Residential A zone, to conform with the rest of the parcel, which is in the Main Street Community Commercial zone. The property is bounded by Main Street, Aspen Avenue and Thirlmere Avenue.

In February, an informal vote of 4-2 indicated city councilors may support the zoning change, although formal passage of the change requires five affirmative votes. Councilor Eben Rose was absent from the workshop.

Planning Board member Katherine Gatti said she appreciates the concerns expressed by some neighbors, and thanked those who spoke passionately Wednesday about the project and its impact. She said the project aligns with the Comprehensive Plan and its focus on development and affordable housing.

The Housing Authority is under contract to purchase the 2-acre property from Cafua Management for $1.2 million. Cafua is the Methuen, Massachusetts-based company that bought the property in 2013 with the aim of building a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts. That proposal was abandoned after it provoked vigorous opposition from neighborhood residents opposed to the scale of the project.

On Wednesday, opponents said the existing zoning was put in place three years ago to protect the neighborhood, and they urged the Planning Board to maintain the zone.

The property, including the former church, parish house and a school building, has been vacant for four years.

Brooks More, SPHA director of development, outlined the agency’s plans and said affordable housing is a critical need in the city, with families of moderate incomes, individuals with disabilities and the elderly in need of stable housing. More said some families have been on the agency’s waiting list for nearly two years.

The Housing Authority will apply for a federal low-income housing tax credit to help fund the project. More said four applications are usually selected each year, based on a point system for specific criteria, including the cost to build each unit.

He said the building will not be financially viable unless it includes at least 40 units.

In three meetings with the Housing Authority, some Thornton Heights residents have asserted the project will disrupt the character of the neighborhood and cause problems with traffic and density. Others have said they support public housing, want to attract more families to the area, and are open to ideas presented by the agency.

Laurie Carr, now a Thornton Heights homeowner, on Wednesday said she was a former occupant of public housing and it allowed her, as a single parent, to be an active community member. She said affordable housing is needed in the city and it allowed her to build a life for herself and for her two children.

Several residents said single-family homes would be a better fit in the neighborhood, and expressed disappointment the 1960s-era church would be razed.

To qualify for affordable housing, a single person would be allowed to make no more than $28,000 per year, and a family of four would have an annual income limit of $41,000.

Rents would range from $770 per month for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,081 for a three-bedroom unit, More said.

If the SPHA plan moves forward, construction could begin as early as fall 2019, with completion expected a year later.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at 

The former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., South Portland, is the proposed site of a $9 million affordable housing project.