UPDATE: Developers withdraw plans after Willard Square building ban moves forward in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A pair of businessmen who hoped to build an upscale market in Willard Square withdrew their plans Thursday following strong neighborhood opposition.

The move came three days after the City Council gave initial approval to a 95-day emergency moratorium on new construction in Willard Square. 

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the developers lost financing for the project.

Councilors on Monday unanimously approved the first reading of the moratorium, despite concern the action would send a chilling message to the business community.

Councilors said the moratorium was needed because city staff never followed up on a previous effort to establish design standards for the neighborhood.

“This is not about the project that triggered this,” Councilor Tom Blake said. “This is about the process we started but didn’t follow up on. And now is an opportunity for us to take some time and do it right.”

The moratorium was brought to the council after neighborhood residents began actively opposing the planned construction of the market and deli at 7 Pillsbury St.

Councilor Jim Hughes suggested it was disingenuous for people to say, as several residents suggested, that the moratorium is not a response to a specific business.

“I have, in emails and in conversations with people, heard the exact opposite,” Hughes said. “I’m not sure where the difference comes from between what people say publicly and what they say in a less public forum.”

The grocery and sandwich shop, which was going to be called Ebo’s Market, planned by Glenn Perry and Ian Hayward would meet existing zoning regulations, but city staff encouraged them to first meet with neighbors.

Although they made some changes to their plan, neighborhood opposition only increased, culminating in a petition signed by 200 people asking the council to enact a moratorium.

Neither Hayward nor Perry could be reached for comment after Monday’s meeting.

Thompson Street resident Linda Sanborn said at the meeting that she was speaking on behalf of the Willard Square residents. “Our main concerns are valid ones in safety and traffic,” she said. “As longtime residents there, it’s scary and it’s getting worse.”

Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said she is concerned the council action would dissuade developers from engaging with neighbors. Had Hayward and Perry simply submitted their plans, the city would not have been able to stop it, she noted.

“It’s something they could have done a month ago if they had kept their mouths shut,” De Angelis said. “That’s my concern.”

But most councilors agreed that a 95-day moratorium would produce a better development in the end – one that may eventually be supported by the neighborhood.

“That way the business has a chance of success if the neighbors are in favor,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

Several residents expressed concern about increased traffic and parking issues that could be created by customers and delivery, especially with a school nearby. 

Some councilors suggested that city staff not only focus on design standards for the area, but also conduct traffic studies to identify any potential improvements.

Councilor Tom Coward said he wanted city staff to move as expeditiously as possible.

“I just want to hold people’s feet to the fire,” Coward said. “I want to see this thing go through as quickly as possible.”

But Councilor Patti Smith disagreed, saying the city should take as much time as needed to protect the fabric of the neighborhood.

“The time it takes is the time it takes,” she said.

But Councilor Al Livingston said he is concerned about how the moratorium would affect the city’s image during a time when economic activity is rare.

“I hope this doesn’t discourage folks from developing in South Portland,” he said.

The moratorium was scheduled to be considered by the Planning Board on May 24, and was expected to return to the seven-member council on June 6 for a final vote, where it will require five affirmative votes.

In other business, the council also approved the first reading of an ordinance change that would allow a farmer’s market in Thomas Knight Park.

Also, De Angelis presented a citizen recognition award to John “Slim” Lee, who devoted the 34 years to the South Portland Boys & Girls Club. Previous awards were given to Linda Johnson and the late Warren Simpson.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

This story was updated on May 20.