A developer wants to build 20 duplexes on what is now 3 acres of wooded land with a walking trail at the edge of University Park, a protected tract near Morrill’s Corner in Portland.

But to do so, Wescott & Payson II, LLC will need a zoning change from the city, because current zoning allows only single-family developments. The developer made a similar request in 2006 and was denied by the City Council.

The project would add 40 townhouse-style dwelling units to a tight housing supply, but it is facing organized opposition from neighbors and could also rile open-space advocates in Maine’s largest city.

The homes would be built on a strip of wooded, undeveloped land next to University Park, which contains 9 acres of protected woodland between Forest and Washington avenues. A popular trail, known as the Harvard Street path, skirts the park’s southern boundary and would be paved and made into a city road for the new homes.

“I think it’s a really nice project,” said the developer, Michael Payson Jr. “I think the town homes are going to be attractive and it will be a nice walkable development. I think it adds nicely to the housing that already exists there.”

Elizabeth Rose disagrees and is organizing residents of the Deering Junction neighborhood, which sits between the Back Cove and North Deering sections of the city. She’s created the “Save University Park” Facebook group, although the development would occur outside the official park boundary. She started an online petition and has been canvassing the neighborhood to raise awareness.

Rose, 39, who has lived on Woodlawn Avenue with her husband and their three children since 2016, understands the need for housing, but she doesn’t want the city to sacrifice open space to build it. “We have this lovely communal feel that really centers around that space,” she said of the path.

Instead, housing development should be focused on areas with existing infrastructure, such as roads, utilities and public transportation, she said.

“We understand that in a city like Portland, we have to make room for everyone, but we want our politicians, our neighbors and the community to understand that green spaces are important too, especially in Morrill’s Corner, which is so industrial,” Rose said. “I would hate to continue losing green spaces that are so precious.”

Todd Dadaleares puts a flyer in a mailbox on Yale Street in Portland on Wednesday while canvassing the neighborhood with his wife, Nancy Norton, far right, and neighbor Elizabeth Rose in opposition to a proposal for 40 new homes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Payson said he did not know about the organized opposition to his project until told by a reporter this week. He said he’s not surprised, because similar opposition was voiced when he developed the nearby Woodwinds apartments, Yale Court affordable housing and the single-family homes along Yale Street from 2004 to 2006.

“We just have to explain it to people as best as we can,” Payson said. “Hopefully, there will be support for it.”

The land proposed for rezoning consists of 28 parcels that were part of a subdivision that was originally approved in 1937, according to the application. It was changed in 1988 from a zone that allowed multifamily housing (R-5) to the existing zoning (R-3) that only allows single-family houses. Payson said he doesn’t know why.

A new, 1,400-foot dead-end road would be built for the project, said Peter Biegal of Cumberland-based Land Design Solutions, which is representing the applicant. He noted that the parcels are next to an existing multifamily housing zone.

Because one side of the road has a protected open space, Biegal said the development on the other side will have to finance the entire road costs. The zoning change is “critical” in helping to offset those costs, estimated at $1,000 a linear foot, and keep the units more affordable, he said.

The duplex units would be for-sale condominiums, Payson said, and each unit is envisioned to have 1,500 square feet, two bedrooms, a single-car garage and a back deck. He is hoping to keep prices for the units at around $350,000.

Elizabeth Rose talks with a neighbor Wednesday while gathering petition signatures and handing out information on a proposal for 20 duplexes on what is now forestland in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We believe extending the R-5 Zone line to include the Wescott & Payson II lots as proposed and as previously zoned would be in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood, the original zoning intent and would allow much needed additional housing units while facilitating lower price points making them affordable to a broad range of residents,” Biegal said in his application to the city.

Payson said it would be “very hard” to make the project work without the zoning change. Rose, the neighbor, hopes that defeating the change will prevent the property from being developed.

The project is subject to the city’s Inclusionary Zoning ordinance and would have to include four units affordable to a middle-income family. Payson said he’d like to build the affordable units, rather than avoiding the requirement by paying the roughly $105,000 per unit fee to the city and building all market-rate units.

Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, said staff has just begun its review of the recommendation. He noted that a similar zoning change was requested – and denied by the City Council – in 2006, but more research is needed to determine why.

According to a news item published at the time, the council voted 7-0 against the proposal, also by Wescott & Payson II. That plan would have allowed 15 duplexes of affordable housing on two parcels. It’s not clear why the request was rejected, but it would have included parcels not owned by the developer.

The city has since updated its comprehensive plan, which sets goals for development in the city. It addresses all sorts of areas, including housing, transportation and conserving open space.

Hester Mishkin, at her home Wednesday on Yale Street, signs the petition opposing a developer’s plan to build 20 duplexes on wooded land nearby. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We’re nowhere near a recommendation at this point or whether this is the right place for this kind of development,” Levine said. “There are policy guidelines from the comp plan for a list of different things and we need to try to balance those. But ultimately it’s up to the Planning Board and City Council.”

A neighborhood meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Apex Management Office Building, 31 Old Campus Drive.

The request will first go to the Planning Board, which will send a recommendation to the City Council for a final decision.

Levine said the request has not yet been scheduled for a Planning Board meeting.

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