2015-03-20 / Community

South Portland council to revise open space plan

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland City Councilor Tom Blake holds a copy of the city’s 2001 Open Space Strategic Plan. Blake has called on the council to workshop on updating and revising the plan. (Image courtesy SPC-TV) South Portland City Councilor Tom Blake holds a copy of the city’s 2001 Open Space Strategic Plan. Blake has called on the council to workshop on updating and revising the plan. (Image courtesy SPC-TV) SOUTH PORTLAND — A series of stalemates over public property in South Portland has prompted city officials to suggest it might be time to update a 2001 Open Space Strategic Plan.

“I think it’s a pressing issue. It’s come up again and again,” said Councilor Tom Blake, at a March 9 council workshop.

Earlier at that meeting, the council entertained an offer from Martin’s Point Health Care to purchase the former Hamlin School at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer Streets, used since 2010 to house the city’s department of planning and development. Martin’s Point wants to tear down the 1960s-era school and put up a new building for its South Portland branch, now located in Knightville. That plan has been criticized by residents who object to the possibility of a large-scale development in their neighborhood.

The council also has wrestled for more than a year with the future of a 2.88- acre lot at the corner of Westbrook and Main Streets. Once a school ballfield, the property was virtually ignored by the city for more than a decade, until late 2013, when a plan was developed to lease the site to a Dunkin’ Donuts developer. Council members have acknowledged the proposal was a way to lure the developer away from the former St. John’s church, nearby. However, the idea was deemed an imperfect solution by a large and vocal contingent and the concern has since become what else, if anything, to do with the property.

Meanwhile, the council rejected in January a request from H.W. Land Company to rezone property at 590 Highland Ave. The developer wanted to build 32 multi-family homes on 2.51 acres at the site, and offered to convey the remaining 9.3 acres to the city with a conservation easement, to be known as the Dow’s Wood Nature Preserve. Despite a 7-0 recommendation from the planning board on Nov. 12 to approve rezoning required to let the project proceed, the council rejected the concept, saying it packed too many housing units into too small an area.

The city also recently considered a proposal by Hardy Pond Construction to develop a 6.5-acre lot at the end of Summit Terrace Road, known locally as “the piggery,” because it once housed a pig farm. However, after a series of meetings with abutting property owners and other neighbors, Hardy Pond backed out of the project before it landed on the council’s table.

South Portland also has taken heat from residents for other recent property transactions, such as the sale last year of the former Roosevelt Elementary School on Pine Street, for redevelopment as condo units. In making the sale, the council rejected a more substantial offer from the South Portland Housing Authority for low-income senior housing, saying the deal depended on uncertain grants and had a longer timeline to completion.

“We don’t have a very good record of real estate deals in this city benefiting the residents of this city,” said Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis, at the March 9 workshop. “I have to wonder why Martin’s Point doesn’t approach some private landowners for their development. Maybe they think they can get a better deal from the city, like others have in the past.”

For Blake, continual kickback from the public on South Portland’s land moves conjures images of mobs bearing torches and pitchforks, not dissimilar, in a rhetorical sense at least, to the public fight in Portland over Congress Square Park.

“Portland did not have a plan, and we saw what happened in Portland,” Blake said. “There was a citizen initiative and Portland now has an ordinance that says they can not sell public space over a certain square footage unless it goes to voters. I think we can avoid that.”

The best way to preserve council autonomy on property sales would be to redraft the open space plan, Blake said.

However, as Councilor Patti Smith noted, doing so will require a total rethink from what was drafted 14 years ago.

“The current inventory does not include all city-owned property, because some of those weren’t thought of as open space,” she said. “I think that was a problem with the original philosophy to begin with.”

“I think we need some public input,” Blake said. “What is a park? What is open space? What do we want to preserve? What are we actually not going to accept? We don’t know that, and it’s beginning to haunt us a little bit.

“This is not going to be easy, because there are lot of tangents,” Blake said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but I think we should take a stab at it.”

Full schedule

The council agreed to take up Blake’s initiative, and Mayor Linda Cohen proposed starting with a “council field trip” to all city-owned properties, including “various creeks and wetlands.” Smith suggested it should wait until after mud season. But how long after that the council will wait to work on the open space plan remains to be seen. All workshop dates through early May are booked, while an additional 13 items remain in the wings, waiting for their turn at the agenda.

The council currently has budget deliberations scheduled for March 23, March 30, and April 13, with a joint budget session with the school board slated for April 27.

The March 23 meeting will also include a closed-door meeting with attorneys from Boston law firm Foley Hoag to discuss the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by Portland Pipe Line Corp., which hopes to overturn the city’s recent ban on so-called “tar sands” oil.

Meanwhile, the April 27 workshop session is expected to include consideration of Councilor Brad Fox’s proposal to institute a minimum wage within South Portland city limits.

After that, the next workshop session on May 11 will be dedicated to a presentation from the city’s department of water resources protection on continuing efforts to control stormwater runoff.

Of the 13 unscheduled topics, two will probably fall under the gavel sooner than the others.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond is proposing a change in local fire codes that would require inspection of any building with three or more units before it can be sold.

“He doesn’t want someone to dump a building full of violations onto the next person,” Gailey said, adding that the proposal is a response to the Nov. 1 fire in a deficient building on Noyes Street in Portland that killed six people.

Also on the fast track will be council debate on rezoning the area around the former Maine National Guard Armory at 682 Broadway. The city has an offer on the table from Priority Real Estate of Topsham, reportedly for $700,000, to buy the armory property and redevelop the property into a café and gas station. Priority would demolish the cavernous armory section, but preserve the historic art deco façade and front offices. However, the deal hinges on re-zoning the property.

At its March 7 meeting, the South Portland Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend that the 2.74-acre armory lot be moved out of the Residential A zone and into a new Conditional Armory Zone that would allow commercial use of the site. That change will have to be approved by the city council, which will undoubtedly consider it in a workshop session before proceeding to a first reading, public hearing and final passage.

The remaining 11 items the council needs to address in future workshop sessions, listed in no particular order, include:

• Review and possible revision to the council’s standing rules.

• Creation of new zoning rules for the Mill Creek area, to allow more mixed-use development.

• Consideration of LED street lighting. To save money, the city shut off dozens of lights in 2011 and 2012. New rules that let municipalities own, rather than merely rent, street lights, coupled with the comparatively low cost of LED lighting, might allow some lights to be turned back on.

• Review of sections of the city’s personnel policy relating to political activity undertaken by city employees. South Portland recently lost a Superior Court case after it tried to prevent then-city librarian Karen Callaghan from seeking a seat on the school board. It has yet to amend the policy to reflect the court ruling.

• Review of the construction timetable for the new public works complex on Highland Avenue and ongoing environmental assessments at the current facility on O’Neil Street.

• Consideration of a sign ordinance related to socalled “electronic reader boards.”

• Consideration of a proposed ban on plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, similar to the one recently adopted in Portland.

• Discussion of how to address rising sea levels.

• Consideration and possible amendment of rules for on-street parking and use of city parking lots during the winter season.

• A review of “substandard building lots” throughout the city.

• A hearing stemming from the ongoing tar sands debate, to understand if local oil companies have the financial wherewithal to decommission their oil storage tanks, or to respond appropriately to any significant accident or spill.

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