SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors and citizens took the first steps Monday night toward deciding what to do with the 2.3-acre parcel of city land at the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets.
Most options they discussed, including creation of a conservation easement, would eventually preserve the property as open space.
The grassy area became the lightning rod of debate last year over a proposed zoning change that would have allowed construction of commercial buildings up to six stories tall in Thornton Heights.
The parcel was linked with the property that houses the former St. John the Evangelist Church at Main Street and Thirlmere Avenue. Massachusetts-based Cafua Management, which bought the church property, proposed demolishing the building and replacing it with a Dunkin’ Donuts.
In May, after church neighbors expressed strong opposition to Cafua’s plan, the council voted to rezone the church property to prevent its demolition and replacement by a 24-hour, drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was then proposed that Cafua lease the city-owned lot at Main and Westbrook. The Planning Board supported the rezoning and recommended that the council adopt it.
Neighborhood residents and members of the abutting Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue openly opposed the proposal and advocated to preserve the parcel as green space.
The council ultimately failed to muster enough votes to change the zoning. The property has remained vacant since the vote in May.
On Monday, City Manager Jim Gailey offered a suggestion that could trade short-term nuisance for permanent improvements on the property.
He said the Water Resource Protection Department is in need of a “laydown yard” or staging area for the next one to two years for the second and third phases of the Thornton Heights/Pleasantdale storm water and sewer project on Main Street.
“Once it’s finished being used, the city would work with the contractor to enhance that parcel,” Gailey said. “Some may shriek at the thought of having dump trucks and motors using (the property), but the end result would be some improvements that would be paid for through the project or through the contractor that’s actually using the parcel.”
Fewer than 10 residents addressed the council with suggestions about what to do with the parcel. Not surprisingly, most supported preserving the lot as open space or a park.
Kate Lewis, vice president of the South Portland Land Trust, said there is a “critical need for open space (in Thornton Heights, which is) increasingly under development pressure.”
The trust wants to “support” the city to put a mechanism in place that would “permanently protect the open space parcel.” An example might be a conservation easement, Lewis said.
Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, thanked the land trust for bringing up the idea of a conservation easement and said the synagogue would “certainly support that and will actually put some money toward maintenance if that was issue for the council.”
Resident Devin Deane told the council, “As a neighbor, my interest is thinking long term (about) the redevelopment of the business district on Main Street where we have kind of, I won’t say bad businesses, but less favorable businesses there: a pawn shop, a couple convenient stores, some low-end motels.”
Deane encouraged the city to explore bringing in a local business on the business district half of the parcel, like a Rosemont Bakery, “a place that we frequent that isn’t a pawn shop.”
Councilors Brad Fox and Tom Blake expressed full support for preserving the parcel as green space.
“I think the time is right for us to take some action that does indeed preserve that,” Blake said. “We had a quandary over the past year only because for the past 100 years, we didn’t take definitive action, and I think this opportunity is right for us to do that right now.”
In order to move toward a specific use, the council needs more detailed advice from residents who live near the area, Councilor Melissa Linscott said. “How we use it needs to have more input from the neighborhood … maybe there could be a community garden in the area.”
A park could be what the Thornton Heights neighborhood needs to flourish, Councilor Claude Morgan said. “There is a real feeling that the neighborhood could really take off if it were given the right resources. I think this is one of those resources.”
If the council chooses to allow for the parcel to be used as a laydown yard, Gailey said, the decision will have to be made within the next month.