The city councilor representing Portland’s East End says she plans to move forward with a proposed moratorium on development projects next to public parks in her district, even though a developer has agreed to scale back a condominium project that threatened to obscure a popular view of the Back Cove.

If approved by the City Council, the two-month moratorium would give city staff until Feb. 6 to draft additional rules for development projects near public parks to protect their “essential character,” whether it’s a view or wildlife habitat. The moratorium would apply only to the East End and was narrowly crafted in response to a specific development proposal on Sheridan Street.

Belinda Ray

Belinda Ray

“I think it’s (the) right move at this point,” District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray said, noting that the effort could lead to additional rules citywide. “For me this is not about a particular project. It’s about making sure public parks in Portland – beginning in this area – have the protections they need to preserve their major assets.”

The council will hold a public hearing and likely vote Monday on the moratorium, which was offered in response to community concerns about a potential condo development that would affect the views from Fort Sumner Park. The 1.25-acre park on North Street offers sweeping westward views of the city, Back Cove and Mount Washington. It’s a popular place to view sunsets.

Bernie Saulnier of Saulnier Development first met with neighborhood leaders last summer to discuss his plans for 155 Sheridan St. At the time, the six-story, 65,000-square-foot building would have blotted out the view of the Back Cove and northward. Opposition was immediate, prompting residents to collect petition signatures and call on the city to designate the park a historic landmark.

Saulnier, who has the Sheridan Street property under a purchase contract, continued to meet with board members of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization. He eliminated 3,000 square feet from the upper three floors, but that design still would have blocked the view of the northernmost portion of Back Cove. Another revision added back a full fourth floor while scaling back the upper two floors even further, but the design still appears to block views of Mount Washington.

Last week, Patrick Venne, who has been representing Saulnier, said the developer is now open to constructing a four-story building to avoid having any impact on the view. He hopes that gesture will be enough to prevent the council from enacting a moratorium, which would further delay the project, possibly threatening its overall viability.

Ray first proposed the moratorium in October, but the council postponed action until Monday. Venne said that has already led to a delay, and he worries that an additional two months will not give staff and the Planning Board enough time to draft, vet and approve new rules, which could lead to further delays.

“The delay has a real cost to it,” Venne said. “We’ve already agreed to lop off two floors that we are entitled to build – that’s why we don’t think the moratorium should go forward.”

No plans have been filed with the city. And the developer has been meeting with neighborhood residents at the request of city staff.

Venne said residents and councilors have no reason to believe that Saulnier would not keep his word about pursuing a four-story building. “I know this is a sensitive site that scares a lot of people,” he said, “but this developer has been atypical to the extent to which he is seeking upfront buy-in from the public.”

The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization announced the new compromise last Tuesday. However, President Jay Norris said most community members still support the moratorium, mainly because they mistrust the city’s Planning Board and believe some city ordinances are inadequate.

“Until the City Council evolves our ordinances, this moratorium is merely a Band-Aid, a clear sign that our city government has yet to catch up to the change and growth surrounding it. We should all be concerned about that,” Norris said. “Portlanders should also begin to hold our council at least as accountable as the developers hoping to do business here.”

The fledgling Friends of Fort Sumner Park will also advocate for the moratorium, said member Nini McManamy.

“Our support for the moratorium is not only because it would temporarily relieve development pressure on the park, but also for the commitment it makes by city leaders to find better ways to protect all our parks and cemeteries across the city,” she said. “We don’t know who will eventually develop the Sheridan Street property, which is still unsold, but we hope that whatever is built there will help relieve the affordable housing crisis in Portland without impacting the public’s enjoyment of the park.”

Several councilors, as well as Mayor Ethan Strimling, said they were encouraged that the developer is showing a willingness to compromise, but they would likely take their lead from Ray, since she is the district councilor.

“I think protecting our public parks is a good idea,” Strimling said. “Let’s do it on the East End and figure out how we can do it citywide.”