2013-01-04 / Front Page

The Sentry takes a look back at its top stories

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Each year, the Sentry reflects on the most thought-provoking, controversial and intriguing local stories over the course of the previous 12 months. This year, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth experienced a number of changes. Two noted Maine businesses, Tony’s Donuts and Bull Moose, made new homes in South Portland. A Cape Elizabeth institution, the Pond Cove IGA, underwent a significant facelift. The new Veterans Memorial Bridge opened to connect commuters from South Portland to Portland, and three new faces will be on the South Portland City Council in 2013. And those were all left off the list of the Sentry’s “Top Stories of 2012.” Here are the 10 stories that did make the cut. • The South Portland High School football team struggled to a 2-6 record in 2012. The young Red Riots were outclassed most of the year by more experienced Class A football teams, but a disappointing year ended on a high note. In the annual “Battle of the Bridge,” the Red Riots put together an outstanding defensive effort and upset rival Portland 19-6.

The Bulldogs finished the season 5-3. That record was good enough for a playoff berth and Portland advanced to the Western Maine Class A semifinals before losing to Cheverus. But the trophy for the annual rivalry will remain south of the Casco Bay Bridge, as South Portland has defeated Portland in three consecutive seasons.

The win may have added significance because of impending changes from the Maine Principals Association that will likely expand Maine’s high school football teams into four classes. South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston said a meeting is scheduled for January to discuss which teams will play where, but he said, “We will see four classes for sure. How it looks is up in the air right now.”

Livingston is fairly sure Portland and South Portland will end up in different divisions in Class A, but hopes the MPA will consider the rivalry, which dates back to 1907, when scheduling non-divisional “crossover” games.

• On Election Day, Maine voters decided to make their state one of nine in the U.S. to allow same-sex marriages. The decision was a close one, 53 percent of voters statewide approved Question 1, but in South Portland, same-sex marriage received overwhelming support with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

South Portland’s city government reflected that attitude two weeks before the election, when the council decided to approve a resolution publicly taking a stance in support of same-sex marriage.

“We have a lot of different folks who live in South Portland and many are gay and lesbian or transgender. It’s important to recognize them and take a step toward equality,” said then-Mayor Patti Smith in October.

Smith is gay and volunteered for Mainers United for Marriage, an organization that advocated for the passage of Question 1.

While the issue of same-sex marriage was widely approved of in South Portland, the public show of support received backlash from some citizens.

“I have no objection to anyone having their own personal opinion. My concern is with the council, representing the city of South Portland, taking a position on one item on the ballot,” said Hill Street resident Jim Hoy.

South Portland was one of a handful of cities and towns in Maine that decided to open its doors to issue marriage licenses on Saturday, Dec. 29, the first day same-sex couples could be married. See page 1 for the story.

• For the last five years, the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s first priority has been to preserve the forest, fields, ponds and hiking trails that make up Robinson Woods in the Shore Road area. In November, the land trust purchased the 63.6-acre property for $1.2 million from John Robinson’s four nephews to reach that goal.

The town of Cape Elizabeth appropriated $350,000 to help preserve the “Robinson Woods II” property, but outside of that contribution, the land trust was on its own. The rest of the money to preserve the property came from private donations accepted during a yearlong fundraising effort. The land trust completed the deal just ahead of a November deadline.

“We get one chance to do these deals,” said Chris Franklin, executive director of the land trust at a reception to celebrate the purchase in late November.

The newly-acquired land, along with the 79- acre “Robinson Woods I” property, purchased in 2001, preserves for a public use all but a sliver of the trail that leads from Fort Williams Park to Kettle Cove.

• In May, a group of 11 men from Massachusetts rented a house on Lawson Road for a weekend to throw a bachelor party. That alone isn’t all that notable, guests frequently visit Cape Elizabeth from out of town, especially in summer, to experience its rural character and rocky coastline.

But the loud music, leftover beer cans and parking headaches of the summer bachelor party upset neighbors in Lawson Road and brought to a head the issue of how the town governs shortterm rental properties. Neighbors wanted, at the least, stricter regulations to hold property-owners accountable for the behavior of their residents, and at the most, an outright ban of rentals shorter than a week.

Property owners argued that renting out their properties for a weekend was sometimes the only way they could afford to stay in their home, and the town government action was overstepping its bounds to control behavior that should be a police department matter.

After months of public discussion, the town drafted a short-term rental ordinance to strike a compromise between the two parties in November. The town will grant permits to property owners in Cape Elizabeth that want to operate a shortterm rental business on a “three strikes” basis. If tenants or property owners violate the new shortterm rental ordinance three times, that permit is revoked for a year.

•Farmers markets aren’t generally a source of controversy in most towns. There’s usually little to argue about an outlet for customers to buy fresh produce, meat and seafood, while supporting local vendors.

But in South Portland, tension clouded the farmers market’s move from Thomas Knight Park to Hinckley Drive this summer as individuals offered different visions about how to best help the market succeed.

Market Manager Caitlin Jordan, who also operates the Alewive’s Brook Farm stand at the winter market, believes the market just needs some more time at the Hinckley Drive location to grow and succeed. She said area construction this summer likely kept some customers away and contributed to the slow business that caused a few vendors to drop out.

“It went very well last year so we’re hoping it can continue this summer. But the council is talking about possibly moving it. I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Jordan said.

“I think we would just like to continue as is if possible.”

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said the city council will look at a number of possible changes at a meeting in January to improve the summer market in 2013. Discussion will likely include changing the ordinance language to accommodate more vendors, whether the market could be held on private property, and other locations after the “trial period” last year on Hinckley Drive.

• Discussion of a path that would connect Cape Elizabeth’s town center to Fort Williams Park began in 2004 with controversy. Many residents worried the path would slice through their property and cause a disruption. Town officials had to walk the path, knock on doors and agree to a compromise that would run the path through only public property to make the vision a reality.

But when the path officially opened in October, the disagreement and politics that characterized the eight years the project was in motion faded into memory. Families walked down the path to Fort Williams, where cider and apples were waiting for them, while children drew designs in chalk outside the old entrance to the park.

Steve Goldstein was one of the approximately 150 residents who attended the opening ceremony.

“I hated driving down (Shore Road) on Sunday mornings cause I knew there’d be bikers on one side, joggers on the other, and it’s winding. Now, it’s going to alleviate that congestion so it’s a major safety upgrade,” Goldstein said.

The new path leaves just two short stretches of Shore Road without pedestrian access between Cape Elizabeth’s town center and South Portland: one between the old entrance to Fort Williams Park to the new one, and another from Surf Road and Cottage Lane.

Town Manager Mike McGovern said while most residents focus on the stretch between entrances, the other piece is equally important to provide unimpeded recreation access. He said the town council has included extending the path between in those two stretches in its 2013 goals as a budget consideration.

•South Portland ended what councilor Tom Coward called a “shameful episode in the city” this September, when it voted to stop offering health care benefits to city councilors.

The decision will eliminate the health care option entirely as of December 2013 for current councilors, ending a heated and frequently personal debate that began when a resident filed a petition to cut the benefits. The original ordinance language sets council pay at $3,000 annually but makes no mention of health care.

Then-councilor Rosemarie De Angelis was the most vocal and outspoken critic of the health care benefit. She voted against the motion to end the benefit because she thought the end of 2013 was too much time to get rid of an illegal benefit. De Angelis said in an August workshop alternate proposals to phase out health care slowly or to evaluate both health care and compensation together were “a farce” and “a bunch of malarkey.”

Coward was the other councilor to vote against the proposal to cut council health care, which passed 5-2. He did so because he believed it will discourage qualified candidates from running for local office.

“The character of this discussion cannot contribute to encouraging people to run for this body or serve on other bodies in the city,” Coward said.

• Construction to separate underwater storm drainage lines and improve sidewalks wrapped up this November in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland. The project, along with the work to improve Mill Creek Park nearby, caused what City Manager Jim Gailey called “construction fatigue” in the neighborhood.

But for local business owners, concern about construction fatigue were secondary to concerns about what the parking arrangement would look like once the bulldozers, yellow tape and orange caution signs cleared out.

Originally, design plans called for parking spaces along Ocean Street to switch from the current angled-formation to parallel spots, which would allow the street to stay two-way, accommodate pedestrians, and avoid reducing the total number of spots.

But Ocean Street business owners packed city hall in workshops and meetings whether the issue was on the agenda or not, and fought to keep the angled spots in front of their buildings. The formation, they argued, was conducive to customers pulling in and out in a few minutes to get groceries at Legion Square Market or a coffee at Verbena. If customers had to parallel park, they’d likely just go elsewhere.

After initially deciding to stick with parallel parking early in 2012, the council had a change of heart. In August, it decided to keep the angled spots while switching part of Ocean Street to a oneway.

• Some town officials said voters’ decision not to approve $6 million to rebuild Thomas Memorial Library was a “surprising” and “disappointing” result. But that result was also decisive: 57 percent of votes cast on the ballot measure were a “no.”

The decision has forced the council to regroup in hopes of finding answers as to how the town can improve its aging library facility. The design project to rebuild the library began with a study commissioned in 2007, so over the last few years only the town performed only necessary repairs with the idea that the entire building may be replaced by 2014.

Signs in town that supported a “no” vote on the library referendum urged the council to “renovate” the library rather than rebuild, but councilor Jessica Sullivan said there are no official town plans yet to schedule more repairs or to bring another proposal in front of voters. Any project that costs the town more than $1 million will have to go to a citizen referendum. However, Sullivan did say she wants the library to remain a priority in 2013.

“This building is falling apart. I’m certainly interested in putting a bond back before the voters,” Sullivan said.

• The $40 million bond measure to rebuild South Portland High School passed more than two years ago, but it’s still hard to drive through the city without seeing a “Renew SPHS” bumper sticker on a minivan or pickup truck. The aging high school facility is clearly still an issue on the minds of many residents.

In May, construction crews broke ground on the rebuilding project that will bring the vision of the high school South Portland voters approved in 2010 to life. High School Building Committee member Ralph Baxter said steel beams will go up soon that will start to make the piles of dirt and multicolored beams on Highland Avenue take shape as a new structure.

The project, Baxter said, is “on schedule with not much room to play with.”

The biggest challenge for construction crews, Baxter said, was sometimes getting the project out of the ground. Discarded debris and garbage in the ground slowed down initial progress, but now that crews are erecting structures and getting “closed in” from wintry weather. Baxter said progress should move quickly, and he hopes the project can once again move ahead of schedule.

Students returned to school this September for the first time since the project began. Although the flow of passage through the hallways is somewhat different, Superintendant Suzanne Godin and Principal Jim Holland said the project isn’t affecting day-today classroom life. In fact, Holland said, some teachers have been able to fold the construction plans and mechanics into their curriculum.

The end date for the project is set for June 2015, with students returning to the new building for the 2015 school year in September.

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