This map, presented at the July 22 South Portland Planning Board meeting, outlines a proposed apartment complex at 66 Evans St., which would include a parking lot. Residents are asking town officials to put a six-month moratorium on new development in the city in order to protect the natural landscape. The initial proposal would have forced projects like these to be placed on hold. Courtesy / City of South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is moving to create a citywide, six-month moratorium on development, responding to critics who say current projects are threatening the city’s natural tree cover.

The council decided at a workshop Tuesday to ask City Manager Scott Morelli and other city officials to prepare a draft for a vote; Morelli said the council has not yet set a date for first read.

City Councilor April Caricchio called for the workshop and said she was responding to concerns from the South Portland Land Trust and the city’s Conservation Commission. She also said she had heard complaints from residents, too, though she could not say how many calls she had received.

Richard Rottkov, president of the land trust, said he initially proposed a six-month moratorium retroactive to May 1, saying this would put projects that began this summer on hold. The two most notable, he said, were a proposed 7,275-square-foot, 13-unit condominium at 81 Surfsite Road, which would include a 22-space parking lot, and a proposal to build four new one-and-a-half story buildings with a total of 12 two-bedroom apartments at 66 Evans St., which would include a lot with 31 parking spaces.

Both projects, according to Morelli, received preliminary approval from the Planning Board earlier this year. Rottkov said he was not proposing approvals already gained for the projects should be revoked, but he hoped the moratorium would temporarily halt the projects and others like them from proceeding.

“Essentially, we’re trying to get a hold on these projects,” he said.

Barbara Dee, acting chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, told the council at the Sept. 1 workshop that the city’s state of development was a cause for concern. From March 1 to Aug. 1 this year, she said, there have been 205 building permits issued and more than 400 trees in the city cut down already. Dee said more cutting would lead to air quality problems and impact climate change. She supported the moratorium to give officials time “to research and develop an action plan” to address these issues and tweak city ordinances to better protect the environment during future development.

During public comments, residents spoke in favor of protecting the environment in general and trees in particular. Robert Goldman said he lived hear the Surfsite project and worried about the trees in what he called the “Surfside Forest” that could be lost.

“It will be an incredible loss for the entire community,” he said.

Elizabeth Frazier, an attorney representing the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, said she and the association were concerned about the negative economic impact the moratorium could have on South Portland’s economy.

“We query whether the harm that is of concern here could be addressed through other, less drastic means,” she said.

Developers of both the Evans Street and Surfsite Road projects also spoke during the workshop, criticizing the proposal. Mark Loring, of Loring Builders, who said he was managing the Evans Street project, said he has lived in South Portland nearly his entire life and took accusations personally that he was unmindful of the damage being done.

“When developers and builders are demonized, it’s really insulting,” he said.

Paul Vose, who said he was one of the owners of the Surfsite property, said his project involves “one building on 1 1/2 acres and saving a bunch of trees.” Vose asked the council not to pass a retroactive moratorium, as he feared it would undo a lot of the planning and approval work that’s already been done.

“I think the retroactive component will potentially financially devastate those of us who are in the planning process,” he said.

Councilors said they supported a moratorium, but suggested making it active as of Sept. 1, and not trying to retroactively stop planning projects that are in progress. Councilor Mischa Pride cautioned against focusing too much upon a particular project or developer.

“We cannot make this about Surfsite,” he said. “We cannot make this about Evans Street. We cannot target landowners. That’s just asking for trouble.”

Mayor Katherine Lewis said she believed a moratorium would give city officials time to improve ordinance language about issues such as protection of trees and regulation of large asphalt surfaces. Doing so, she said, would underscore the city’s commitment to environmentalism.

“We could do a better job of defining it,” she said.

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