2015-01-02 / Front Page

A look back at 2014’s top stories

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND/CAPE — Here’s a phrase Sentry readers might have heard at some point during the past year — “tar sands.”

For most readers, 2014 must have seemed hardly distinguishable from the year that preceded it, given the inescapable, never-ending debate on diluted bitumen. Still, by mid-year the issue was, at long last, largely settled — at least until the first round of predicted lawsuits — and city residents could turn to other things.

Believe it or not, things did happen in 2014, in both South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, that had nothing at all to do with tar sands, and, as often as not, those things has implications that were just as historic, and far-reaching.

Here, then, as we always do this time of year, we present a run down of the top stories covered by the Sentry during the last 12 months:

January

After more than a year of construction, and many, many more spent planning, pleading and procuring, the board of education threw open the doors to the newly renovated South Portland High School. The $47.3 million project —funded in part by a $41.5 million bond approved by voters in November 2010 — hit the halfway mark with a celebratory open house. Following the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon, students and parents were welcomed into the new cafeteria, lecture hall, administrative offices, and library (or learning commons, to use the modern vernacular), as well as the classrooms of the new science wing.

The project reaches its final phase next week with another ribbon-cutting. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 4, the school board will cap 33 months of construction by opening the last of the newly rebuilt classrooms to the public. Community members will be able to tour the new wings until 4 p.m. The new rooms will then be pressed into service by students at the first bell, Monday, Jan. 5, as the school board turns its eye to replacing the city’s two middle schools with a single, new facility. That ribboncutting is expected in about eight to 10 years, so you’ve got time to save up for your party dress.

Also in January, cross-country ski trails opened to the public at the Wainwright Athletic complex, Partners for World Health moved its headquarters to South Portland, and interest began to heat up over replacing the hot tub at the South Portland Community Center. That $20,000 fundraising project continues to gain steam at year’s end.

February

After a year off, Winterfest returned to South Portland, bigger and better than ever under the auspices of the city’s parks and recreation department, which joined the South Portland- Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club to host the public party, with fun-filled family activities at Mill Creek Park and the Wainwright complex. This year’s event is just around the corner, slated to kick off with a luminary walk and Knightville block party at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 30.

Meanwhile, in Cape Elizabeth, Emmy-winning cartoon producer Jeff Kline entered a new field, founding Darby Pop Comics to produce original comic books, while Kelso, a 7-year-old border collie owned by Delaney Ratner, won the first-ever agility contest at the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual dog show in New York City.

March

A $9.2 million dredging project got underway in the Fore River, designed to clear the shipping channel by digging up more than 700,000 cubic yards of material from the river bottom, which was then dumped six miles out to sea off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. For more than a month, residents were treated to the site of the Dale Pyatt, believed to be the largest rig of its kind in the nation, at work just off shore.

Also in March, South Portland adopted new voting districts and local film company Lone Wolf Documentary Group began work on a D-Day special, using reenactments on local beaches, that aired in June on the 70th anniversary of the World War II Normandy invasion. Cape Elizabeth handed out its Boston Cane to 105-year-old resident George Baker, and South Portland dad Justin LeBlanc walked 114 miles from Fenway Park in Boston to Hadlock Field in Portland to raise money and awareness for Tourette’s Syndrome, which his son, Theo, is diagnosed with.

April

South Portland finally called “uncle” in its long-standing legal fight with former librarian Karen Callaghan, waged over the right of city employees to run for seats on the school board. After three years and two separate appeals, the city ended up paying Callaghan’s lawyer and other legal costs, to the tune of nearly $100,000. An overhaul of city policy had been promised.

In other April news, Cape Elizabeth banned smoking at Fort Williams Park, South Portland approved new rules for sidewalk seating at cafes, and the city began work with Aspasia Marina, which has yet to bear fruit as the site remains one of the most dilapidated eyesores in South Portland.

May

The South Portland City Council split over a zoning amendment that would have enabled construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Sawyer Park, a former school playground at the corner of Main and Westbrook Streets. For several months, residents had been in arms over the purchase of the former St. John’s Church by a Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ developer, which announced plans to tear down the building and replace it with a 24-hour drive-thru restaurant. In response, the city rezoned the church neighborhood to prevent the development and offered the developer the unused park. That angered congregation members at the neighboring Temple Bet Ha’am, which feared their award-winning synagogue would get blotted by the fast-food franchise next door. By year’s end, the city had rezoned of the area, but only after carving out the park parcel, leaving it untouched. The question of if and when a Dunkin’ Donuts might be built there remains up in the air.

Also in May, South Portland hosted the New England Ultimate Frisbee competition and placed limits on where sex offenders could live, while Cape pulled the trigger on a new shooting range ordinance.

June

Following a principal swap forced by federal regulators, South Portland won a $1.6 million grant to combat low test scores at Kaler Elementary School, which had received a failing F grade in the state’s new efforts to focus public attention on struggling schools. Overhaul of the school, already underway at the time the grade was given, has continued, with school officials promising improved results.

In other news that accompanied graduation season, South Portland announced it was putting the former armory building up for sale and began fielding heat about the potential legalization of marijuana in the city.

July

South Portland made history with the passage by the city council, in a 6-1 vote, of the Clear Skies Ordinance, designed to block diluted bitumen, or tar sands, from ever entering the city by preventing the loading of crude oil onto ships at harbor. Passage of the zoning amendment was hailed as a major win by local environmental activists, but the threat of a legal challenge from the petroleum industry has hung over the city’s head ever since.

Meanwhile, the city responded to a slight from Greater Portland Landmarks, which earlier in the year placed all of South Portland on its list of “places in peril,” by forming an Arts and Historic Preservation Committee. The group had organized and held its first meeting by year’s end, but a promised architectural inventory and assessment of the city remains in the planning stages.

August

Among the headlines in August, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey was named manager of the year by the Maine City and Town Manager’s Association, the city’s garden collective announced plans to place new plots in the Redbank neighborhood, the city received a petition to legalize marijuana and sent the question on to voters, and Cape continued to wrestle with the best way of regulating the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club following years of complaints from its neighbors.

September

South Portland adopted a climate action plan that calls on, among other things, hiring a “sustainability coordinator” and the use of electric vehicles. Toward that end, the city hosted an event at the community center at its new public charging station, designed to boost public use of electric vehicles, with more than a dozen models from area dealers made available for test drives. By year’s end, the city had purchased its electric cars and installed additional charging stations at city hall and the planning and development office.

Also in September, Legion Square Market was lauded for 75 years of continual operation, marking it as one of the oldest businesses in the city, while a new business continued the “eat local” trend with the opening of the Farm Stand, a partnership of the Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth and the Farmers’ Gate Market butcher shop in Wells.

October

While much attention was focused on the upcoming gubernatorial and legislative races, as well as local initiatives, residents of South Portland rallied for Gina Page, a popular resident injured in a home fall that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Sweatshirts bearing the words “GINA STRONG” began to appear throughout the city, while funds were raised to help convert her North Richland Street home for her eventual return from the hospital. A special fundraising event has been scheduled for Jan. 25 at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland.

November

Election Day brought the legalization of marijuana to South Portland, although Police Chief Ed Googins promises his officers will still enforce state and federal prohibitions. Cape residents also approved a $4 million makeover for Thomas Memorial Library.

Meanwhile, South Portland announced it had sold the former armory building to a Priority Real Estate Group of South Portland, which plans to remake the historic building into a café and gas station.

December

As the year drew to a close, former city clerk Linda Cohen took her seat as the newly chosen mayor of South Portland, leading a sea change on the city council, following the recent elections of a more liberal, environmentally-aware contingent, including Claude Morgan and Brad Fox. For his part, Fox made waves at year’s end by promising to introduce a measure to increase the minimum wage allowed in the city.

But that’s news for 2015.

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