Annual District Meeting Raises Concern for Transparency in Development Decisions
by Tony Zeli
UPDATE: The Planning Board hearing for text amendments to Waterfront Port Development Zone that was requested by Economic Development and Americold has been postponed.
Parkside, St. John Valley, Oakdale/USM and West End neighbors covered a lot of ground at the District 2 Annual Meeting on Tuesday, November 15th. They came prepared to discuss everything from street sweeping and snow removal to immigration and housing policy. But, the Economic Development Department’s handling of major developments and the selling of city lots took center stage. Neighbors had some blistering accusations concerning a lack of transparency in the City’s decision-making process.
But first, the meeting got underway with infrastructure and quality of life complaints.
West End resident Peter Hall said leaf blowers cause too much noise and pollution. He wants to ban the noisy devices. Other neighbors followed suit and complained about leaves clogging sewers, street sweeping not happening often enough, and ticketing and towing not happening enough.
District 2 City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau had to protest that accusation. He said he gets plenty of complaints from residents who have been ticketed and towed. So, no worries there, plenty of that going on.
Of course, these are the things district meetings are all about. The Councilors and City staff need to hear and respond to these day-to-day concerns. After all, Councilor Thibodeau ran his 2015 campaign on infrastructure improvement. As such, he particularly must expect infrastructure complaints.
Sanctuary City Designation Debunked
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck responded that Portland is not a sanctuary city. In fact, City police will work with Federal immigration agents as required by law. They will not however actively seek out residents’ immigration status.
Mayor Ethan Strimling chimed in, “We are not going to work with Donald Trump to deport millions of people.”
Decision-making at the Economic Development Department
After a brief reprieve to a more mundane snow removal question, things soon got going again. Several neighbors shared concerns about how the Economic Development Department makes decisions. What is the City’s process? Where is the transparency?
A big sale of Bayside land, where several City services are currently housed, is coming up. City Planner Jeff Levine said the land would be sold based on the best use given current zoning. Remember, he said that. Given current zoning. Who knows what zoning changes will be needed once the land is sold – as that seems to be Economic Development’s modus operandi. First, approve the proposal, and then change the zoning.
And now to the Americold development on the Western Waterfront. Economic Development has requested to increase allowed building heights in the Waterfront Port Development Zone.
Zone Change Bombshell
West End resident Jo Coyne was very concerned about the cold storage facility that Americold is set to develop on West Commercial Street. She raised a similar complaint about process, as that raised by Rosanne’ Graef in her recent piece for the West End News, “The Uglification of the Jewel by the Sea.”
According to Jo and Rosanne, early meetings between Americold and neighborhood leaders in July and August did not include mention of zoning changes. But in fact, Americold and the Economic Development Department are requesting a building height change from forty-five to seventy feet. Jo described it as a “bombshell” that was dropped on neighbors by Economic Development at an October 13th neighborhood meeting.
According to project consultant Jedd Steinglass of Woodard and Curran, it was made clear from the first meetings with the community that a building greater than forty-five feet was needed in order for the facility to be successful. So, the suggestion of a bait and switch by Americold is not accurate.
Regardless of how and when the decision was made to recommend a zoning change, most at the annual meeting did not like the idea. When put to the question, all but a few hands were raised in opposition to increasing the zone’s building height limit to seventy feet.
Public Hearing Postponed
There is still time for public comment on this issue. Americold and the Economic Development Department were scheduled to go before the Planning Board on December 13th. The Economic Development Department requested that this hearing be postponed with the approval of Americold and the Maine Port Authority, who owns the land. They requested the postponement for additional time to better illustrate design concepts. The Planning Board will likely table the hearing to sometime in January. Stay tuned for more opportunities to weight in.
Other Issues from AirBnB to USM Campus Redesign
Neighbors discussed other issues, such as the City snow removal ordinance. Every property owner is supposed to clear their own sidewalks. The ordinance is difficult to enforce on repeat offenders. West End resident Alex Landry thought the ordinance could use more teeth.
AirBnB regulations came up. The Housing Committee will discuss possible regulations on short term rentals at their Monday, December 1st meeting (Council Chambers, City Hall, 7 p.m.).
The India Street public health clinic was mentioned. Health and Human Services want residents to know that the STD clinic and needle exchange program are still operating at the India Street location.
Other city developments got some attention, too. City Manager Jon Jennings said the Midtown project is still under negotiations and will likely go back before the City Council. A campus redesign plan for USM was mentioned, but few details are available. And, of course, the Maine Medical Center expansion came up, but it did not get much attention at this hour and half public meeting.
Each of Portland’s five political districts hold annual district meetings. District councilors lead the meeting in each district. At-large council members, the City Manager, Mayor and City staff attend. These meetings occur every November and are a chance for residents to voice concerns, ask questions and get involved.
Tony is publisher and editor of the West End News.
Article updated on December 13, 2016.