New petition on Knightville traffic, St. John proposal withdrawn

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Less than two months after the South Portland City Council agreed to return to two-way traffic on one block of Ocean Street in the Knightville neighborhood, a new petition is circulating to put the traffic pattern back to one way, with diagonal, on-street parking.

The city also has been notified by local developer Kerry Anderson that he is withdrawing a request for the rezoning of the former St. John Church lot at the corner of Thirlmere and Main streets, only a few weeks after approaching the Planning Department about turning the historic church into a mixed-use project that would have included both residential and commercial uses.

The one-way traffic pattern for the block of Ocean between E and D streets was first created in 2012, after the city spent months and millions of dollars on revamping the infrastructure in Knightville, particularly updating the street scape.

This past winter and early spring the council spent many nights listening to people on both sides of the issue.

One group submitted a petition to have the traffic be two-way the entire length of Ocean Street, arguing that with the one-way pattern too much traffic was being dumped on narrow, residential streets, while another group, mostly led by local merchants, argued passionately for the one-way traffic to remain.

Now Alan Cardinal, the owner of Smaha’s Legion Square Market, and Curtis Bates are circulating a new petition calling for the continuation of one-way northbound travel on Ocean Street and maintaining 15 diagonal parking spots on the west side of the street.

Petition gatherers would need to collect the signatures of at least 944 registered voters, or 5 percent of those voting in the last election, to place a referendum question on the November ballot, according to City Clerk Emily Carrington.

Petitions must be returned to Carrington by July 15, she said, then her office has 20 days to determine if the required number of valid signatures was submitted. If so, the council has 60 days to either adopt the traffic change request or send it out to voters in a referendum.

It was early March when the council voted to put the traffic between E and D streets back to two-way, with Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen dissenting.

Re-striping of the street was scheduled for the end of May, according to City Manager Jim Gailey, who said last week that if a formal petition is filed, it would be his recommendation that the council delay the work until after the November election, rather than risk the possibility of having to do the work twice.

However, in an unscheduled, brief discussion at the end of the May 9 City Council workshop, Blake told Gailey that the plan to re-stripe Ocean Street should remain on schedule.

“The council made a decision, and government does not stop for something that may or may not happen,” Blake said.

Last week Bates, said there’s a lot of potential to grow Knightville in a healthy, vibrant way, and part of that growth means keeping the area accessible, which the one-way street promotes.

“I just think ultimately, big picture, it’s the best thing for the community,” he said.

With more than 25 people collecting signatures across the city, the goal is to comfortably exceed the required number of signatures, he said, and to do it as quickly as possible.

However, in an email, D Street resident Melanie Wiker, who led the campaign to end the one-way configuration, characterized the new petition drive as “a private property owner … trying to have the city subsidize him, while risking the safety and welfare of those who use city streets and live in Knightville.”

At the May 10 Planning Board meeting, Tex Haeuser, South Portland’s director of planning and development, announced that Anderson had withdrawn his application to redevelop the former St. John Church in the Thornton Heights neighborhood.

The board was set to get a first look at Anderson’s proposal, last week, and following the meeting Haeuser said he didn’t know what led the developer to withdraw his application. He speculated it could have been related to Anderson’s negotiations to purchase the property from Cafua Management.

The property Anderson wished to rezone included the former St. John the Evangelist Church, parish house and school building. He wanted to rezone the back portion of the site, which is currently in a Residential A zone, to conform with the rest of the nearly 2-acre lot, which is in the Main Street Community Commercial zone.

Anderson said early last month that his proposal would serve all interests of the neighborhood, including the preservation of the church, and that the mixed-use development would be “completely in keeping with the (city’s) Comprehensive Plan.”

Sun Media Wire staff writer Kate Irish Collins also contributed to this report.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected] Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.