2012-12-28 / Front Page

City trades one property for other

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The city of South Portland sold a property on the east side and bought a property on the west side, which may help preparations continue for a potential new public works, parks and transportation facility on Highland Avenue.

The city received just over $130,000 in net proceeds when it sold a property at 857 Broadway at an auction to winning bidder Hill Street Apartments, LLC of Portland on Dec. 6. Most of that money was placed in the city’s Public Works Facility Reserve Account, but only as a “placeholder,” said City Manager Jim Gailey.

It was a placeholder because a large chunk of those funds were swapped out to purchase a property at 933 Highland Ave. next to the city’s transfer facility and the proposed location of a new public works, parks and transportation building.

The new building would go into place if city voters approve a bond measure this November. The purpose of the Public Works Facility Reserve Account is to build up some savings so the entire cost of the facility, estimated around $18 million, is not placed on South Portland taxpayers.

If the city does end up building a public works building, the acquisition of the new property will allow it to avoid some of the issues that residents currently have with the current location.

Gailey said the city purchase would create a buffer between the public works building and private residences. The close proximity of houses to the current building has brought some complaints with residents in the densely populated O’Neil Street area where the current building is located.

“We need to be cognizant of our neighbors,” he said.

“I’m happy to see the city thinking of not allowing development right next to the transfer station. Not only because there’s hopes of doing something bigger and better, but people think they can live with just about anything until they’re there,” added Councilor Linda Cohen.

“I think this is a piece of brilliance on the city’s part to purchase this property,” she said.

Cohen, a real estate broker, motioned to recuse herself before the vote on the property purchase because the brokers who represented the seller were her daughter, April Tracy, and her son-in-law, Lenny Tracy.

Cohen felt she could objectively vote on the matter because she receives no additional commission or financial compensation from the sale of the property unless she directly refers a sale, which was not the case in this instance. Her peers on the council agreed, and allowed Cohen to vote on the purchase.

The value of the Highland Avenue property is not necessarily tied to a new public works building, Gailey said. Now that the city owns the property, it has the ability to redo the access road that leads into the transfer station.

That access road currently has poor sight lines and little space for the large trucks that need to frequently move to and from the transfer station, Gailey said.

“I think this makes all kinds of sense from the city’s point of view,” added Councilor Tom Coward, who also noted that the only way an east-west road could ever be built – a long shot in his view – was with the addition of this property.

The final potential advantage to the new property that councilors mentioned at the Dec. 17 meeting was possible open space, such as a new sledding hill for children in the city.

“Once we get that inert landfill filled in, you could start at the top and get a good ripper down that hill,” Gailey joked.

The motion to approve the purchase passed unanimously, but Mayor Tom Blake had some reservations.

He thought the city had rushed the process without doing its “due diligence” in never asking for a bank appraisal or an environmental assessment.

“I think we overpaid,” Blake said.

Still, he voted to approve the purchase because he recognized the potential value despite feeling the cost was too high.

Not all the money from the sale of the 857 Broadway property went to the Public Works Facility Transfer Account and the purchase of 933 Highland Ave. The city allocated 30 percent of the revenue to its Land Bank Account, which was established in case the city or the decides to purchase a property at the last minute.

Gailey said the most likely scenario in which Land Bank Account funds would be needed is if the South Portland Land Trust recommends a purchase of a property threatened with development. Currently, the account has $470,000 available; The balance is capped at $1 million.

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