The Portland City Council voted 6-3 Wednesday night to proceed with a rezoning of the Elks Lodge property on outer Congress Street to allow for offices despite opposition from nearby residents who cited the city’s housing shortage.

The 7-acre property is now zoned for low-density residential use and the Elks Lodge has been allowed as a conditional use. It is near other single-family homes, but it is bordered on two sides by property owned by Unum that is zoned for offices.

Councilors were conflicted over rezoning residential land for office use at a time when the city is experiencing a housing shortage, even though no housing development has been proposed for the site.

“I think, given the housing crisis we have right now, I’m uncomfortable with this rezoning,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who wanted the city to do a study of the neighborhood. “There are a lot of houses that have been built not too far from there. I think there could be housing built there.”

But the majority of councilors agreed with David Brenerman, who noted that the city has a chance to keep Clark Insurance, which has been doing business in the city for decades.

“While this is geographically near the neighborhood, it’s not really part of the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not in the midst of the Stroudwater Historical District. It’s more a part of the Unum property than it is a residential neighborhood.”

The Elks Lodge has its property at 1945 Congress St. under contract for sale to Northland Enterprises, which wants to build two office buildings. The Elks, which argues that the $1.25 million sale is vital to the organization’s future, would remain on site in a smaller building.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who has made housing a priority, supported the plan but didn’t comment during the council discussion.

After the meeting, Strimling said that without a housing proposal to consider, the offices would allow the city to keep jobs and increase tax revenue.

“We’re not going to solve the housing crisis with this property,” Strimling said. “I think the proposal was a good use for the property.”

The council had held two public hearings on the Elks proposal, so no public comments were taken Wednesday.

The proposal faced opposition from Stroudwater residents. Pointing to the city’s housing problem, in which a strong demand and low supply are driving up rents, they argued that the 7 acres should remain zoned residential, which would better align with the goals outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan.

While neighbors and some councilors want housing on the site, real estate agents have noted that the property has been on the market for years and no developer has ever proposed housing on the parcel, which is across Congress Street from the Portland International Jetport.

The council delayed voting on the proposal several times, and that pushed the issue into the new year, when the council has two new councilors and a new mayor. The council’s most recent delay occurred on Dec. 21 to allow new councilors to have questions answered.

Belinda Ray, one of the new councilors who sought additional information, said she found no compelling reason to change the zoning to allow offices. She speculated that no residential developers have stepped forward because of the zone’s low density.

If anything, she said, the council should increase the residential density for the land, which is on a city bus line.

“A great deal of housing could in fact fit on this site,” she said.

According to the city’s planning staff, rezoning the property could allow 76 to 273 units of housing.

Other councilors feared that neighbors would oppose any effort to increase housing density.

“We’d be having the same conversations,” Councilor Justin Costa said.

Councilor Jill Duson joined Mavodones and Ray in opposing to the rezoning.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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