Portland City Council to conduct public hearing on first phase of land-use revisions

The council will also hold a workshop on a proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District

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The Portland City Council will begin the final adoption process for the first phase of the city’s overhaul of its land-use policies, including rules governing accessory apartments, with a public hearing on Nov. 9. 

The council will also hold a workshop on the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District, a plan narrowly endorsed by the Planning Board in August.

“Recode,” as the process has been called, seeks to modernize and streamline the city’s land-use code in an effort to comply with the Comprehensive Plan. It will overhaul what has been called an overly long and complicated set of rules that do not meet the city’s needs. The city’s planning staff has been working on it for two years, and the Planning Board, which eventually supported the changes, began its review of this phase in November 2019.

This is the first time in more than 50 years the city has sought to rewrite its land-use code,  currently a 1,000-page document.

According to a press release from the city, the first phase includes extensive reformatting, restructuring, and updating of the existing code, as well as a concerted look at streamlining and rationalizing particular areas of existing policy.

“The result is a well-organized new code, using tables and graphics, that will increase predictability and clarity for users of the code,” the release stated.

While the first phase of the rewrite is largely technical, a few big-picture items have been tacked on, including the rules governing accessory dwelling units and parking in the city. City officials have previously stated the hope is to reduce barriers to the city’s housing needs, especially in lower-density areas where existing code is confusing and restrictive.

Accessory dwelling units, which are frequently seen as in-law or above-garage apartments, are secondary housing units built on a single-family residential lot.

Phase one also looks at off-street parking in an effort to simplify policies. The city has been trying to do that already, often allowing a developer to pay a fee instead of meeting a certain parking requirement, or by allowing shared parking spaces with nearby businesses.

The second phase of Recode will begin after the council approves the first phase, and it will examine the code under the scope of goals set out in the Comprehensive Plan. Phase two will look at residential zoning, permitted uses within zones, dimensional standards, and other such items.

The council has already held two workshops on Recode’s first phase.

Munjoy Hill

A council vote on the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District is expected Nov. 16, a week after next week’s workshop.

The Planning Board first took up the proposal in December 2019, although the Planning Department began eyeing a potential historic district in the East End neighborhood as far back as 2017.

The proposal drew prolific public comment at meetings, often with as many speakers in favor as there were opposed. It was eventually recommended by a 4-3 Planning Board vote.

Although city staff initially told the board the neighborhood would benefit from a historic district designation that recognizes the working-class citizens who historically lived there, Munjoy Hill is now hardly associated with the working class; it has some of the most expensive real estate and housing costs in the city.

Many of the nearly 430-properties that would be included in the proposed district were built prior to 1924. The city’s Historic Preservation Board conducted several site walks and visits for the district and determined the area met the preservation criteria.

Council to workshop affordable housing projects

The Portland City Council is slated to have a workshop Nov. 5 on a pair of affordable housing projects proposed for city-owned property.

The two parcels are at 43 and 91 Douglass St. in the city’s Libbytown neighborhood.

The city Economic Development Committee earlier this summer recommended accepting a $575,000 offer from developer Jack Soley, Avesta Housing, and Herbert Construction.

The city received two responses to a request for proposals for the project: Soley’s, called Douglass Yards, and another called Douglass Commons for $475,000 from the Szanton Co. and Maine Cooperative Development Partners.

Both proposals also include affordable housing tax increment financing.

Douglass Yards calls for a 40-unit apartment building, a 30-unit condominium building, and 10 single-family homes with accessory dwelling units. Douglass Commons proposed a four-story, 56-unit apartment building, another three-story building with 36 units, and four two-story buildings.

Both projects require a zoning change to allow increased density.

According to the city, the rental units in Douglass Yards would each be in three-story buildings, and lower-income residents could receive housing assistance for the apartments, as well as opportunities for ownership in the neighborhood in the future.

The proposal’s 40-unit building would remain affordable for at least 45 years, although Avesta said it plans to keep it affordable beyond that requirement. The developer is also planning to keep the condos at a small size to ensure they remain accessible in price.

Szanton’s Douglass Commons proposal would have various permanent affordability restrictions for 52 planned co-op spaces. New residents would have to meet income requirements. Market-rate units would be affordable to those with incomes of 75-80 percent of the area median income.

— Colin Ellis