SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council unanimously agreed Monday to remove the municipally owned lot at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets from the proposed new Thornton Heights Commercial zone.

Councilors said they hoped the amendment would allow the zone to move forward while the city took more time to decide whether the lot should be maintained as open space or be developed under a possible deed restriction.

When it was introduced earlier this spring, the new Thornton Heights zone created a controversy among members of the nearby Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue who were concerned about the possibility that a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through could go in next door.

Councilor Maxine Beecher suggested the Thornton Heights zone amendment, which includes the removal of the 2.3-acre corner lot and a change to the setback requirements. It must first go back to the Planning Board for review before the council can take it up again.

Beecher said she made the amendment because, “I feel strongly that the new Thornton Heights zone should go forward,” and she feared that if the corner lot continued to be included that would not happen.

Councilor Michael Pock, who initially voted against the new zone in late May, requested a reconsideration of that decision, which is what put the Thornton Heights zone back on the agenda Monday.

This week, Pock said removal of the corner lot from the new zone was what he wanted all along and he was pleased to see that the other councilors had now come around to his point of view.

Councilor Linda Cohen said she would support removing the corner lot from the zoning proposal since that was the only way to get the new zone passed and allow the city to “start rectifying the problems we’re experiencing there.”

Mayor Gerard Jalbert said he first brought the idea of rezoning the Thornton Heights neighborhood to city staff more than a year ago because he was concerned about the rapid rate of urban decay on the west side of Main Street.

“We need to make a change and the new zone is a part of moving forward,” Jalbert said Monday. “It was never the intent of anyone to make the corner parcel a focal point.”

In prior appearances before the council regarding the new Thornton Heights zone, Tex Haeuser, the city’s planning and development director, has said the intent of the zone is to make that area of the city “into more of a commercial hub that’s automobile friendly.”

The Thornton Heights zone, which would allow increased residential density, higher building heights and reduced setbacks from the road, was initially brought forward hand in hand with a another new zone for the west side of Main Street.

That zone, called the Main Street Community Commercial district, did get passed this spring. It bans 24-hour operations and also bans drive-throughs, which means that Massachusetts-based developer Cafua Management can no longer tear down the historic St. John the Evangelist Church and build its new Dunkin’ Donuts store there as originally planned.

In supporting the removal of the city-owned lot from the proposed Thornton Heights zone Monday, Councilor Melissa Linscott echoed Cohen and called the action “a good compromise to get the (new zone) passed.”

Councilor Patti Smith said the vote allows the city to “make sure it’s doing what’s right for as many people as possible.” And she said that slowing down passage of the Thornton Heights zone was a “prime example of making sure we understand all the implications of the change.”

Councilor Tom Blake said inclusion of the corner lot in the new zone “was a problem from the start,” and said it’s now his hope that there is enough momentum in the community to keep the lot as open space.

“There’s a growing tide in the community that wants to save this 2.3 acres and that is very open to preserving parks and open space,” he said.

Jalbert said the goal is for the Planning Board to review the amendments the council made to the proposed Thornton Heights zone on July 8, with final approval at the council level scheduled for Aug. 4.


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