SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is considering a controversial six-month development moratorium, spurred by two multifamily housing proposals on wooded parcels that threaten to destroy hundreds of trees.
One proposal is a 13-unit condominium on Surfsite Road, near Willard Beach and Southern Maine Community College. The other is a 12-unit apartment complex at Evans and Hill streets. Both have preliminary Planning Board approval.
City leaders are responding to development pressure that coincides with a growing desire to preserve the city’s dwindling green spaces, in keeping with recently updated climate action and open space plans.
Exactly what types of development would be halted, what would be accomplished during the moratorium and whether the temporary ban would be retroactive have yet to be determined. Still, the vast majority of councilors have voiced strong support for an idea that appears to conflict with the city’s affordable housing development goals and has sparked concern beyond South Portland.
The Conservation Commission and the South Portland Land Trust requested a moratorium on projects of more than two units. They want it to be retroactive, running from May 1 through Oct. 31. They didn’t specify whether it should apply to residential, commercial or all development.
“I’m not opposed to all development. I’m opposed to development in forests,” said Richard Rottkov, land trust president, during a Zoom council workshop last week.
Barbara Dee, acting commission chairwoman, said the city is at a tipping point of an environmental crisis. The existing land use ordinance is inadequate to prevent serious harm to woods and wetlands, she said, and they are critical wildlife resources that absorb carbon overload in the atmosphere.
Current development pressure is intense, Dee said. The city issued 205 building permits from March through August; there were 26 active building or development projects as of Aug. 31; and more than 400 trees have been cut down for development projects so far this year.
“Do we want trees or do we want tree stumps?” Dee asked during a slide presentation that included photos of two lots that were clear-cut recently.
A ‘MAGICAL FOREST’
The environmental groups are seeking the moratorium at the urging of residents near 81 Surfsite Road, a 1.4-acre wooded parcel in the Willard Beach neighborhood. Lydon Construction Inc. got preliminary subdivision approval May 13 to build a 13-unit condominium with 16 covered and 22 surface parking spaces.
Bob Goldman, who lives around the corner on Preble Street, told councilors he’s outraged at the potential loss of what he called a “magical forest.”
“There are hundreds of trees on the Surfsite property,” Goldman said. “They would all be gone.”
Paul Vose, a developer of the Surfsite property, said the project would endeavor to save trees, but a retroactive moratorium would be “financially devastating” for a development that’s been in the works since 2005.
“It’s really a hardship,” Vose said. “Can it be done … so it doesn’t harm people?”
Vose asked whether the council might move to block the Surfsite development and purchase the property to maintain it as public open space, but he didn’t get an answer during the meeting.
At 66 Evans St., PSC LLC plans to tear down an existing house on the 1.2-acre lot and construct four buildings with a total of 12 apartments and 31 parking spots. The project got preliminary subdivision approval July 22.
Though the council has yet to iron out details of the moratorium, the idea drew sharp criticism from developers and real estate representatives.
Kevin Sutherland, a former Saco city administrator who is business development director for Hardypond Construction in Portland, noted that the projects in question are allowed under current zoning and the city could face lawsuits if it blocked them from moving forward.
Elizabeth Frazier, a public policy advocate with the Maine Real Estate & Development Association, said a moratorium would hurt South Portland’s economy at a time when the city cannot afford it, when many businesses are struggling and people are out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And South Portland developer Vincent Maietta said a moratorium would send a message that the city is anti-development, countering recent efforts to promote affordable housing construction. Maietta said the existing zoning ordinance and project review process are good and should only be touched up.
“You gotta keep affordability in mind,” Maietta said. “We don’t want to become anti-development.”
STRONG COUNCIL SUPPORT
Despite such warnings, a majority of councilors seemed resolute in their support for the concept of a moratorium.
It would give the city time to establish an Open Space Acquisition Committee, draw up a list of eligible properties and start the process to remove a $1 million cap on the city’s Land Bank Fund.
Councilor Claude Morgan said the Land Bank has seen a spike in preservation requests lately, including from neighbors of the Piggery, a 6-acre wooded parcel off Broadway, between Sawyer Street and the Willard Square neighborhood.
The council also will consider zoning amendments to limit tree removal during building construction and site development.
Councilor Deqa Dhalac said trees in her native Somalia are scarce and considered sacred, and she believes they should be more valued here as well.
“We cannot talk about climate change and protecting our climate and just say we’re going to cut trees,” Dhalac said.
Councilor Susan Henderson has called for a workshop discussion to consider passing a tree ordinance that would provide incentives to preserve existing trees and plant new ones. The Portland City Council passed a Heritage Tree Protection Ordinance in August that’s designed to protect larger and threatened trees on public and private property.
Henderson said the city must get serious about preventing climate change, including a development moratorium and zoning changes to stop widespread tree removals that result in acres of asphalt.
“We have to stop,” Henderson said. “Things have to change. It’s not a punitive action against any project. It’s an action to see how are we going to do things differently that will give our planet a chance.”