Colleen Griffin stood with several neighbors on Westbrook Street looking out over a 45-acre field that rolls downward toward the Stroudwater River in Portland.
The property, known as Camelot Farm, teems with wildlife each spring, they say – turkeys, foxes, deer, woodchucks and hawks. And for more than three decades until last year, dozens of adult cattle and calves would soon be let loose to graze on the open pasture and drink from the river that skirts along the edge.
“I can’t tell you how lovely it’s been to see cows grazing over there – it’s better than Prozac,” said Griffin, 56, who has lived nearby for about seven years.
It’s a rare scene in Maine’s largest city and one that may soon disappear.
A group of Maine investors going by the name Camelot Holdings LLC has a contract to purchase the property, which includes about 2,000 feet of river frontage, so it can be developed into a residential subdivision with 95 single-family homes. The group recently bought an additional 10 acres of adjacent land it would like to develop. And they’re asking the city to change the zoning to allow them to build more homes closer together so more open space can be preserved and made available to the public.
The quiet pasture has become the latest battleground over new housing development in Portland. Neighbors are trying to scale down or block the development project, and some are talking about another citywide referendum effort to give residents more control over growth in the fast-changing city.
The Camelot Farm property, at 1700 Westbrook St., was placed on the market in 2015 by the 11 children of Mary and Peter Rogers, who built a sprawling 4,400-square-foot ranch in 1961. It was listed for sale for $2.4 million after Mary passed away and Peter was moved into a nursing home.
Over the years, the family kept cattle, horses, ponies, hogs, geese, Irish wolfhounds and plenty of other pets. The children would sled on the hills, play basketball or tennis on their own courts, and help care for the livestock.
The sale and pending development of the farm likely means the end of what was Portland’s last remaining farmland and pasture land for cattle, a land use that was common in the city’s more distant past.
Arthur Randall, a 75-year-old cattle farmer who lives just over the line in Westbrook, has been grazing his herd of beef cattle on the Portland parcel for about 35 years.
“The last cattle, so far, to be pastured in Portland I took out last Sept. 20,” Randall said. The cattle now stay on his property across the city border in Westbrook. “I thought I had a pretty good relationship with the Rogers family, but I had to find out from somebody else it was under contract, so I took ’em out.”
Camelot Holdings is asking the city to rezone the property from an R-1 residential zone, which has a minimum lot size of 15,000 square feet, to an R-3 residential zone, which has a minimum lot size of 6,500 square feet. The rezoning would allow the developer to build 95 homes, rather than 84 homes, while preserving 25 acres of land as publicly accessible open space that could be connected to the Portland Trails network.
“We’re looking to do a modern take on a traditional neighborhood,” said Michael Barton, a development partner. “The upshot of this location is that it will enable us to create an abundance of open space on the property and unlock what has been privately held for as long as I can remember.”
Barton said the project would be built in four or five phases over several years and include single-story ranches for empty-nesters, modest starter homes for first-time buyers and three- and four-bedroom units for families. Initial estimates on pricing would range from $330,000 to $410,000, he said.
“This is a way to provide people who work in Portland with an opportunity to get into a home ownership option that works with their earning potential and lifestyle,” he said. “To us, it’s something we’re going to take great pride in.”
The project would be subject to the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires large projects to include at least one unit that’s affordable to middle-income earners for every 10 units offered at market rates. Barton said many of the units would fall within that range. He said a home priced around $350,000 would be considered affordable to a family of four with a combined income of roughly $90,000.
Barton said the group also acquired 10 additional acres of adjoining property that borders the Maine Turnpike that they would like to develop, potentially into townhouses. That would bring the total number of units to over 100, prompting added concern among longtime residents.
More than two dozen Stroudwater residents have written the Planning Board in opposition to the zone change request. Their concerns include a large influx of traffic on an already busy commuter route between Westbrook and Portland; environmental contaminants, such as lawn fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, running off into the Stroudwater and Fore rivers, which empty into Casco Bay; and the loss of wildlife habitat.
City Councilor Brian Batson, who represents the district, commended Barton for listening to the neighborhood’s concerns and incorporating input into the plan. He would like the developers to continue talking to the neighbors in hopes of reaching a middle ground on the number of units being proposed and ways to address traffic concerns.
“It’s a massive change for the neighborhood,” Batson said. “The plan today is significantly better than Day 1. However, I do have significant concerns about the project.”
On Thursday, however, the Planning Board indicated it would be scheduling the zone change request for a public hearing and vote in May. It will then forward a recommendation to the full City Council, which would have final say.
HOUSING VS. OPEN SPACE
The proposal highlights the tensions new development proposals face in Maine’s largest city. On the one hand, city officials want to create additional workforce housing, while preserving as much open space as possible. On the other, longtime residents are looking to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, which they believe is protected by the city’s zoning rules.
Since the 2008 recession subsided, Portland has seen an explosion in development. Oftentimes developers have asked for and received zone changes that allow them to build projects with more height and density, especially on the peninsula. Such zone changes typically generate pushback from the neighborhood and occasionally lead to lawsuits, or referendum efforts.
The frequency of the zone changes gives some residents the impression that their concerns are not being heard at City Hall.
“Stroudwater residents have selected a rural setting with many homes possessing acreage, views and wildlife,” Eugenia O’Brien said in a letter to the Planning Board.
The 66-year-old has lived in the area for 25 years and her cellphone is filled with photos of wildlife, including cows grazing, on the property. “You are destroying why we are here and I am terribly upset by your actions and lack of understanding for them,” she said.
But for city planners, zone changes are simply part of living in a city.
Planning Director Stuart O’Brien said the current R-1 residential zone, which encourages bigger homes on large lots, is a remnant of a largely outdated zoning code that was drafted back when much of the off-peninsula land was farmland. He said that in the last decade the city has approved over 200 zone changes, which signals a need to review the land code in its entirety, something the city plans to do next year.
“In a democracy, the government is constantly making new rules and new priorities,” O’Brien said. “One of the biggest goals we have is diversifying housing, and this is a pretty unique opportunity in terms of the housing being provided.”
But for longtime residents like 68-year-old Sandy Beal, who has lived in Stroudwater for more than 30 years, the city’s zoning code is sacred and the city’s willingness to change it amounts to betrayal.
“I don’t understand the purpose of zoning if they change it every time a developer wants it changed,” Beal said, looking out over the rolling pasture land. “It’s really too bad.”
To help address some concerns, Barton said the developers are looking to prohibit the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides through homeowner association documents. They have also reached out to the Metro bus service to see if the development could justify adding another bus route, he said.
But some residents plan to fight to preserve the current zoning, if not the land in its entirety.
Westbrook Street resident Mary Davis said she and a group of other residents throughout the city are working on a citywide referendum that could affect the city’s rezoning process. Those discussions are in the early stages, she said, but the goal would be to make zone changes contingent on the support of the neighborhood, rather than only city planners.
“We didn’t realize the Planning Board so easily rolls over – it just seemed outrageous to me,” said Davis, an attorney. “I think we need to change the way it’s done so the neighborhood has say in zoning changes.”
Another effort is afoot to conserve the land.
Eva Frank, who is also an attorney, said she is hoping to tap conservation-minded donors to make a backup purchase offer, in the event the current sale’s contract falls through.
“We haven’t abandoned the thought that we could be successful in keeping this land open,” Frank said. “To me, this piece of land is much bigger than our neighborhood.
I want to see that land used for community purposes” for everyone in the city.
The Stroudwater Village Association also opposes the zone change and would like to see the developer build only 30 to 40 homes, fewer than even the current zoning allows.
President Dan Koloski commended the developer for addressing neighborhood concerns, including formally designating roughly 15 acres of land as Recreational Open Space that could not be developed. Developers are planning on setting aside roughly 10 more acres as publicly available open space.
Barton, however, said there are only so many concessions Camelot Holdings can make. If they are not granted the zone change, the developers will likely develop the 84 homes allowed under existing zoning, which would eliminate the possibility for any publicly accessible open space.
“It would look a lot different. The open space would be gone,” Barton said. “It doesn’t make sense to us.”
Randall, the farmer, said he has other pasture land for his beef cattle. But he’d be willing to let the cows once more roam on Camelot Farms if the development deal falls through.
“If things don’t go too well with the developer and permits are going to take some time, I would be amenable to put them in there for two or three months to keep the grass down,” he said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: