CORRECTION: CORRECTION: Portland council votes to repeal development restrictions on Munjoy Hill

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Jun. 23—Portland city councilors voted unanimously Wednesday night to repeal restrictions on new construction and demolitions on Munjoy Hill that had been put in place before the creation of a new historic district last year easing some concerns about the changing character of the area.

The 9-0 vote came after councilors spoke about the need to create more housing in the neighborhood and expressed concerns that the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District might be hindering that effort.

Councilor Anna Trevorrow, who represents District 1, including Munjoy Hill, said the decision was still a difficult one because "there's a pretty even split on this issue."

"My guiding question has always been whether or not the combination of policies in place have tipped the balance to preventing housing density to an outsized degree," Trevorrow said. "I don't think that was the intent of this policy. I think the intent was to direct a particular type of density, but I do think it has had the effect of curbing development on the hill during a time when we sorely need housing."

Some members of the public Wednesday night said the overlay was only intended as a placeholder prior to the creation of the Munjoy Hill Historic District and that not only is it no longer needed, but it stands as a barrier to development.

Others said that if the overlay is removed, it will only result in the proliferation of high-end condos that will drive up surrounding property costs.

"I urge the council to not make the same mistake as the planning board and to not modify the overlay district," resident Mike Hoover said, arguing that there wasn't enough analysis or public input when the planning board voted in February to repeal the overlay.

"All you're building on Munjoy Hill right now is million dollar condos," Hoover said. "Do we really need more seasonal residents?"

But Markos Miller, who also lives on the hill, said he doesn't expect a crisis to unfold if the overlay is removed and urged the council to remove it. "I think we need more housing — that's the crisis we face now in Portland," he said.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier echoed Trevorrow in saying that the decision was a difficult one and she worries about longtime residents and lower-income families being priced out if the overlay is removed.

"But I also have a bigger concern with keeping the overlay district, because I think if we keep it, then I'm going forward with what I hate, which is the idea that architecture matters more than getting people into housing or that roof dimensions matter more than getting people into housing," Pelletier said.

The overlay district was adopted in 2018 in response to residents' concerns about the scale and character of recent developments as well as about demolitions, and was intended to make it more difficult to demolish some architecturally significant buildings and ensure that new buildings are built in a similar style, size and scale to those that already exist.

In addition to the underlying R-6 zoning, the overlay provides an additional layer of requirements including that most newly constructed buildings not exceed 35 feet in height — as opposed to a 45-foot maximum height in the R-6 zone. The overlay allows for 45 feet for multi-unit buildings on lots of at least 2,000 square feet that also include at least one "workforce housing unit" to be rented or sold to a household earning 80 percent or less of the area median income.

It also includes design standards such as requiring "simple, traditional roof forms," active living space on the first floor and parking located on the side or rear of the building. And it provides for a delay of up to 12 months on the demolition of certain buildings to explore alternatives.

The Munjoy Hill Historic District, which was approved in 2021, makes up about half the overlay, and is subject to its requirements, with the exception of the demolition delay, as well as the city's Historic Preservation Ordinance. Repealing the overlay doesn't change any of the protections provided by the historic district designation.

The historic preservation ordinance doesn't outline specific height or dimensional standards like the overlay or underlying zoning does, but rather put in place a mechanism to review any changes, and protects contributing structures, with rare exceptions, from demolition.

Most districts, including Munjoy Hill, also have a site plan review standard that states that when a proposed development is within 100 feet of a historically designated landmark, district or landscape, the development will be reviewed for its general compatibility with the defining characteristics of the surrounding area.

The council's decision Wednesday followed a 7-0 recommendation from the planning board to repeal the overlay in February. The board at that time cited changes in circumstances, making the overlay no longer necessary, and concerns about impediments to development.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:00 a.m. on June 23, 2022 to correct the spelling Markos Miller's name.