South Portland to re-examine residential zoning rules

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday overturned the Planning and Development Department’s temporary hold on permits for buildings on nonconforming lots. 

The temporary pause in permits issued by the Code Enforcement Office followed a February decision in Cumberland County Superior Court in a lawsuit brought by Thirlmere Avenue resident Devin Deane.

Deane claimed that a building permit granted at 79 Thirlmere Ave. violated the density requirements of nonconforming infill lots because the property was made up of three lots that separately were too small for construction. 

While the decision is not final, the court ordered Feb. 5 that the application for 79 Thirlmere be remanded to the Planning Board for review, city attorney Sally Daggett told councilors Monday night. 

In the meantime, all pending applications to build on nonconforming lots were put on hold.

But after hearing from several residents who’ve been forced to put their building plans on hold, the council agreed to lift the Planning Department’s temporary hold and to address the zoning ordinance language for bulk residential zoning and the aggregation of nonconforming lots. 

Prior to 2007, the city required homes to be built on lots of at least 5,000 square feet. The ordinance was amended in 2007 to allow building on smaller lots with a Planning Board variance.

The court ruled, however, that allowing combination of lots smaller than 5,000 square feet was unlawfully allowing residents to avoid the Planning Board review.

The planning process can cost between $10,000 and $12,000, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said Monday. In addition, seeking approval through the Planning Department can cost up to $5,000 in permitting fees. 

An easier permit-granting process for nonconforming lots of less than 5,000 square feet would create greater diversity in the housing stock, and prevent urban sprawl, Councilor Linda Cohen said Monday. In addition, allowing the option could attract more young homeowners. 

Will Cabana is one of those young people. 

Cabana and his wife have made plans to build on a part of a 12,000-square-foot lot owned by his parents on Providence Avenue. 

His mother, Kathy Cabana, told the council that she and her husband “planned with great and happy anticipation” to give a portion of their lot to their son.

The Cabanas received preliminary approval for their plans in January, but they were put on hold following the court’s decision in February. 

“I fully understand the need for fair and consistent zoning regulations,” she said. “I understand it’s a complicated issue, and not all the situations are as heartwarming as ours is, (but) I would encourage the council to act swiftly on this.”

Will Cabana said “without approval to build on that land at all, our ability to own the home would be deferred indefinitely.”

School teacher Emily Wright, of Pine Street, faces a similar conundrum. 

Wright, who said she and her family are getting priced out of single-family homes in the area, said they decided their “best option” was to build their own home on their nonconforming lot. So far, she said, her family has spent $8,000 to begin the building process. 

But since the city enacted the hold, “our hands are tied, because we cannot even build or sell our home until we know what’s possible on the lot,” she told councilors. 

Councilors were sympathetic, and reached a consensus to overturn the moratorium on permits.

“What concerns me in the immediate process here is that we’ve got a pipeline full of projects that are on hold,” Councilor Claude Morgan said.

The “whole idea” to make this process easier for people “is to keep communities intact,” Councilor Brad Fox added. 

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

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.