The Portland City Council will vote Monday night on a controversial zoning change for about 16 acres of undeveloped land on Ocean Avenue in East Deering.
The new zoning would allow developers to build a large apartment complex and has drawn significant backlash from neighbors since it was first put forth to the planning board in May.
The large property at 900 Ocean Ave. sits in a quiet, residential neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It’s full of trees, vernal pools, wetlands and granite rock formations. Across Ocean Avenue are a smattering of single-family homes. To the south are the Ocean Ridge Condominiums, a complex with about 50 condos.
The zoning change, already approved by the city’s planning board, would rezone the land from an R3 zone to an R5a zone. Both only allow for residential development, but the size and scope of developments in R5a zones are larger. The R3 zone allows for condos, single-family homes and other small residential developments, but buildings can’t be taller than 35 feet. In an R5a zone, large apartment complexes are allowed and buildings can reach up to 55 feet.
The rezoning process kicked off in the spring when the owner of the land, listed on the proposal as Ocean Ave Development LLC and represented by Acorn Engineering, wanted to build a large housing development that exceeded the limitations of an R3 zone.
Neighbors say they have heard conflicting reports about the proposed development and don’t yet have a clear picture of what it might be.
Chuck Grossman, who has lived in the Ocean Ridge Condos for about 15 years, said he is concerned that a large development might change the character of the neighborhood, bring significant traffic and degrade the natural beauty of the area.
“We realize something is going to be built, but we think it should be in the character of the neighborhood,” he said.
He said the neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks or many businesses within walking distance, and he is worried that increased density will be too much for it to handle.
“There is not the infrastructure for something as dense as this,” Grossman said.
The Ocean Ridge Condominiums Association, of which Grossman is a part, has banded together to oppose the zoning change. Together, more than 50 homeowners have consistently attended City Council meetings, canvassed the surrounding areas, worked with a geologist to asses the potential impact of the project, spoken to people at polling sites this election season and expressed their concerns.
They’ve even taken Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Mark Dion, Pious Ali and Andrew Zarro out to walk the property. Zarro, who represents the area, said he was not available to talk about the project Friday because of a family event.
Besides the scope of it all, the group’s members say they’re worried about the possibility of blasting because of the granite. In order to build foundations, the neighbors and the developer agree they will likely have to blast through the rock.
When Ashton Gardens, an assisted living facility, was built nearby a few years ago, neighbors say blasting from that project had long-term impacts on their homes. Patty Weber, who also lives in Ocean Ridge Condominiums, said that potential makes her even more concerned about this proposal.
“I’m concerned mostly about the environment, but I’m also worried about the blasting. We’re concerned about watershed issues and flooding on to Ocean Avenue if you take down the trees,” Weber said.
The zoning change would also allow structures to be built closer to the edge of the property line, something Weber is concerned about.
“I don’t want a road or building smack right against my property,” she said.
Matthew Tonello, owner of Ocean Avenue Development LLC, said that even though specific plans for the site are still in development and hinge on the zoning change, he hopes to build 280 to 300 units that would be a mix of affordable, workforce and market-rate housing.
Tonello says the onus behind the rezoning is to build taller, more dense housing so that the building footprints are smaller and more of the trees on the site can be preserved.
“We heard what the city wants, and we’re trying to deliver,” said Tonello. “We need more housing and places for working-class people to live. This is not going to be a luxury development.”
“The only people who have used the word ‘luxury’ have been the neighbors,” he said.
The City Council is only considering the zoning change Monday, not a site or development plan. Approving the zoning would not guarantee the development would be approved.
Brandon Mazer, chair of the city’s planning board, said many of the issues residents have brought up will be addressed at the next phase of the planning process.
“A lot of the concerns that have been raised have been about wetlands on the site, traffic, what is the development going to be. And those are really about the next stage in the process,” said Mazer. “This zoning change would just be allowing the possibility of this land being used for something else.”
Mazer says the planning board unanimously recommended the rezoning because it aligns with the city’s comprehensive plan, a document that lays out priorities for the city going forward. Among those priorities is to build more housing stock.
For his part, Councilor Roberto Rodrigo said he will likely support the zoning change.
“The zone change allows for a higher-density project, and that certainly aligns with our goals,” said Rodrigo.
He acknowledges that the community’s concerns are valid, but he thinks that it’s premature to be addressing those concerns during the zoning process.
But Weber says she already knows how she feels.
“We plowed in and have done this research already,” she said. “We know how this is going to go.”
The site plan will not go through the City Council; rather, it will go directly to the planning board should the zoning change be approved Monday.