Superior Court vacates Portland contract rezoning of Williston Church

Justice Wheeler issued a decision on 12/31/2013 vacating a decision by the Portland City Council to rezone the Williston Church property in a West End neighborhood of Portland. Attorney Bruce McGlauflin represents a group of West End neighbors living in the vicinity of the church, who challenged the contract rezoning by filing a complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court. Justice Wheeler granted judgment for the neighbors on two counts of the complaint, which alleged: 1) the rezoning was not consistent with the Portland Comprehensive Plan, and 2) the City Council violated a state statute (30-A M.R.S. 4352(8)), which requires a contract rezoning must be “consistent with the existing and permitted used within the original zones.” The church is located in the R-4 residential zone, which prohibits commercial offices uses and where there are no existing commercial offices. At the request of a developer from Australia, the City Council rezoned the church property to allow a commercial office use with up to 14 employees on site at one time. The Council found the rezone was consistent with the economic development and historic preservation goals of the Comprehensive Plan.åÊ The Superior Court concluded the City Council inappropriately relied on general statements in the Comprehensive Plan to find the rezone was consistent with economic development goals of the Plan. “These statements, however, must be considered in the larger context” of the Plan. Decision, p. 6. The Court also concluded the City Council mistakenly treated the historic preservation ordinance as part of the Comprehensive Plan in finding the rezone to be consistent with the historic preservation goals of the Plan. And finally, the Court concluded the Council mistakenly looked beyond the R-4 zone to find the rezoning to be consistent with existing and permitted uses as required by state law. This is an important decision. It tells municipal governing bodies to carefully review their comprehensive plans and read them as a whole when deciding whether a proposed contract zone is consistent with the plan. It also clarifies the State law requirement that a contract rezone must be consistent with the existing and permitted uses of the zone being changed; municipalities may not look to uses in neighboring zones to find consistency.