SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors have approved a zoning change for a proposed $9 million affordable housing project at 611 Main St., the site of the former St. John the Evangelist Church.

The nearly 2-acre Thornton Heights property includes a parish house and a school building. It has been vacant for four years.

Councilors voted 5-2 in favor of the zoning change at a meeting last week. Voting against the measure were Mayor Linda Cohen and Councilor Claude Morgan, who said the 42-unit project is too large for the neighborhood.

Residents of the neighborhood have repeatedly expressed concerns about increased traffic, noise and density as a result of the project proposed by the South Portland Housing Authority.

The change was recommended by the Planning Board in March, based on the project’s compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

At the meeting, several residents opposed the rezoning, saying the neighborhood of tightly packed homes should not have to assimilate a project of that size. Jonathan James, of Thornton Avenue, said he is not against change, but he believes the scope of the project is unreasonable.

Thirlmere Avenue resident Scott Mckeen said 225 residents signed a petition saying they did not support the project.

But Devin Dean said there are no other residential options for the lot. He warned that big-box chain stores would move into the area if the project is not approved, and the housing needs in the community would not be addressed.

Don Cook said the city was built by blue-collar people who need affordable housing. “We’re talking about people here, not traffic, not a building. This will help 42 families,” he said.

The project will now go to the Planning Board for site plan review.

Only the rear acre of the 2-acre property needed rezoning. It was in a Residential A zone, while the rest of the parcel was in the Main Street Community Commercial zone. The property is bounded by Main Street, Aspen Avenue and Thirlmere Avenue.

The housing authority is under contract to purchase the property from Cafua Management for $1.2 million. Brooks More, housing authority director of development, said the agency will apply for a federal low-income housing tax credit to help fund the project.

More said four applications are usually selected each year, based on a point system for specific criteria, including the cost to build each unit. Notification of whether funding will be awarded is expected in December.

Cafua is the Methuen, Massachusetts-based company that bought the property in 2013 with the aim of building a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts. That proposal was abandoned after it provoked vigorous opposition from neighbors opposed to the scale of the project.

If the housing authority plan moves forward, construction could begin as early as fall 2019, with completion expected a year later.

Juliette Laaka can be contacted at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at:

[email protected] or on Twitter @JulietteLaaka

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