PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday gave initial approval to a zoning change that would allow approximately 100 new homes near the Westbrook city line in Stroudwater.
The routine first reading included no discussion. The proposal for the former Camelot Farm property still requires a public hearing and second affirmative council vote.
But the future of the 50 acres at 1700-1714 Westbrook St. may end up in the hands of city voters.
“We are not revolutionaries,” Partridge Circle resident Eva Polin said June 2 as she described a petition drive for a referendum that would block the proposed zoning change, and others like it, if 25 percent of the registered voters who live within 500 feet of a proposed change object in writing.
Those objections could be overruled if the party seeking a zoning change gathers signatures from 51 percent of the registered voters within 1,000 feet of the change.
If passed, the so-called “Give Neighborhoods A Voice” referendum would amend Chapter 14 of the City Code, and be retroactive to May 15. To reach the ballot, 1,500 petition signatures of city registered voters must be submitted by Aug. 7 and certified by the clerk’s office.
On June 1, Polin and Mary Davis, an attorney who lives next door to the former Camelot Farm, filed a list with the city clerk of farm neighbors who object to changing the Westbrook Street zoning to allow greater housing density.
Polin, who is married to The Forecaster columnist Halsey Frank, and neighbors including Genie O’Brien and Angela Wheaton, are members of the Stroudwater Village Association, which also opposes the zoning change sought by Camelot Holdings.
The petition drive is being done independently from the association, however, and with an eye on the entire city, Polin said.
“I think the Planning Board and to an extent the council have abdicated their role in planning how we live in our community,” she said.
Michael Barton, who is working with Nate Libby of Saco to develop the property, criticized the referendum drive Tuesday.
“The consequences beyond this specific project basically remove the powers of elected officials to make decisions in the best interest of the city. I think it is a step backward in the process,” he said.
O’Brien, a founder and former director of Portland Ballet, said a unanimous Planning Board recommendation supporting the zoning change was another in a line of decisions by city government that favors developers without giving due measure to residents affected by planning decisions.
“This is a larger thing we are appealing to,” she said, citing a vote to sell Congress Square and the process of redevelopment for the former Portland Co. at 58 Fore St. as past examples where ordinary voices were not appreciated in the wider discussions.
Camelot Farm was operated by Peter and Mary Rogers for almost 50 years. The couple raised nine of their 11 children on the land between Westbrook Street and the Stroudwater River. The property went on the market in October 2015, following Mary Rogers’ death.
Barton has a contract to buy 1700 Westbrook St., and has purchased 9 acres of adjacent land at 1714 Westbrook St. The proposed change from R-1 to hybrid R-3 zoning would allow as many as 105 home lots; preliminary plans indicate 96 lots on the former farm and multi-family housing on the property next door. According to a Feb. 24 city Planning Department memo, a full buildout in an R-3 zone would allow more than 160 lots.
In a series of neighborhood meetings and Planning Board workshops and hearings, neighbors have opposed increased housing density because of environmental and traffic questions.
“I feel this developer is an enemy of the environment of our neighborhood and Portland,” Davis said.
City officials have noted the existing R-1 zone would allow more than 80 lots, but Davis and O’Brien said the reality is, the land along the Stroudwater River cannot be developed.
Barton has said at least 15 acres will be set aside for public use, and has increased the size of a development buffer zone between lots and the river, but Davis said the commitment is illusory.
“He is pretending he is giving something to the city in exchange for the zone change, but it isn’t developable land anyway,” she said. “So he is giving something that is of no value.”
Barton disagreed with Davis on the value and scope of the land and project.
“What we are proposing is basically unlocking what has been privately held for the last several decades and a housing product that has been lacking in Portland,” Barton said.
While those questions are likely to come up at the expected June 19 City Council public hearing, farm neighbors said they are indicative of the need for greater reform and their proposed referendum.
“I think the fact this is coming up over and over again shows there is a real issue,” Polin said.
Stroudwater resident Angela Wheaton said neighbors of the former Camelot Farm in Portland expected the land at 1700 Westbrook St. to be redeveloped under exisitng zoning that would limit housing density.
Neighbors hoping to reform city zoning policy said they’re concerned allowing more housing density at the former Camelot Farm could threaten the Stroudwater River habitat, even where housing would not be allowed.