2015-05-15 / Front Page

Workshops have wait list

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council has laid out a schedule of workshop topics through the end of July and, while the question of how to protect open spaces made the list, a discussion of how to keep dogs from damaging those areas failed to make the cut.

Because of the Memorial Day holiday, the council will not conduct a workshop on May 27. Councilors will hold their next session Monday, June 8, when discussion topics will include a check-in on the city budget, a debate about how to regulate the use of pesticides within city limits and a zoning change request for the property at 675 Main St.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the owners of that lot, who also own the Howard Johnson hotel there, have asked to move the property out of South Portland’s “Residential A” zoning district, and into its “Residential G” and “Limited Business” zones.

“They would like to create a mini solar farm next to their hotel,” Gailey said.

The South Portland Planning Board processed the Howard Johnson application at its April 14 meeting, voting 4-0 to recommend approval of the zoning change to the council.

“That one should go pretty quick,” Gailey said of the scheduled agenda item.

The council’s June 22 workshop will cover proposed zoning changes in the Mill Creek shopping district, designed to promote mixed-use development. That topic, expected to be a more lengthy discussion, will be the only issue up for consideration that night.

On July 13, the council will tackle how it deals with open space in the city. It’s a question that, according to Mayor Linda Cohen, has been the subject of many emails since early March, when Martin’s Point Health Care offered to buy the former Hamlin Elementary School at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets, now home to the city’s planning and development office. Martin’s Point wants to move the company’s South Portland branch to the 2.88-acre site, which also houses a community garden. Although Martin’s Point officials have promised to preserve the garden plots elsewhere on the property, the proposal for a 14,000-square-foot medical office and 85 parking spots has drawn criticism from neighbors, who have called it inappropriate and out-of-scale to the surroundings.

Given objections to that project, as well as the city’s now-abandoned plan to lease a park at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets to a Dunkin’ Donuts developer, Councilor Patti Smith asked that the July 13 session also include a review of procedures for selling or leasing public property.

“That could make for a long meeting, with a lot of steps that could trickle down, but I’d just like people to know it’s being addressed,” she said. “As a city, I think we should have a philosophy or process around how we dispose of city property.”

Councilor Tom Blake agreed, providing the second needed to move a nominated topic onto an agenda.

“We could sell Hinckley Park tomorrow,” he said. “There needs to be some discussion about how we permanently protect properties.”

Along the same line, Councilor Maxine Beecher asked to also discuss the creation of a dog park in the city, saying she has recently received several emails rife with complaints of canine-caused damage at Hinckley Park and other locations.

“If we’re going to talk about open space, we need to talk about the dogs,” she said. “We have green space, but we’re horrible landowners. Here we are trying to save open space, but if we’re going to save it, we’ve got to take care of it.”

At first, Blake backed Beecher on that front.

“We’ve had our parks and recreation director telling us recently we have a serious and dangerous situation at Hinckley Park and we need to do something,” he said.

“We have a (dog) problem at Wainwright (Field), as well,” Mayor Cohen said.

However, Smith said debate over how to protect green space “in a legal sense” needs to be a separate discussion from how to protect sites it in terms of physical maintenance.

Meanwhile, Councilor Claude Morgan objected in even stronger terms, saying any attempt to limit dog access to public spaces would violate the result of a 2009 referendum on dogs.

Blake said that vote was only about Willard Beach. The proposal to ban dogs from the beach during the summer months failed 6,770 to 4,377. It was a sign, Morgan said, that South Portland residents want to be able to walk their dogs on public property.

“I object to this conversation,” he said. “I think it is egregiously finding a way to, through the back door, take a stab at a referendum that was lawfully held and conducted. If you’re talking about any limitations, you’re walking right over what the people vote for.

“If, in your desire to fix Hinckley Park, you decide it’s in the best interests of the land to remove dogs, I question that premise,” Morgan said. “I don’t think you have the authority to do that.”

Gailey said city staffers are in the process of drafting a master plan for Hinckley Park, but was otherwise mum on what that plan might say about dogs.

In the end, Beecher’s request to talk about the need for a dog park died for lack of a second. Cohen said she should take her concerns about dog damage in public parks directly to Gailey.

The only other workshop topic scheduled Monday was a review of the council’s standing rules, which will see debate on July 27. However, earlier in the evening during the May 11 session, the council provisionally set “sometime in September” as the appropriate time to revisit a proposal to establish a local minimum wage.

Although another dozen topics are waiting in the wings, the council heeded Gailey’s advise not to set workshop agendas too far in advance.

Topics on the waiting list for future workshops include:  Discussion of the city’s personnel policy regarding political activity. Although South Portland in 2013 lost an appeal of a Superior Court decision affirming the right of city employees to run for public office, it has yet to amend the policy to reflect the court ruling. Gailey’s memo to the council on the topic said, “HR and legal need to talk,” indicating the issue is not yet ready for council debate.

 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. Gailey wrote this topic is “waiting for word from Augusta” and could appear on a council workshop agenda later in the summer.

 Review of the construction timetable for the new public works complex on Highland Avenue and the ongoing environmental assessment of the current facility on O’Neil Street. According to Gailey, test pits have been dig at the O’Neil site and the city is “waiting for results” of what contamination, if any, might exist.

 Consideration of a sign ordinance related to socalled “electronic reader boards.” Gailey said the police and code enforcement departments are currently working on ordinance language. A draft could be ready for council vetting by August, he wrote.

 Consideration of a ban on plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, similar to the one recently adopted in Portland. With nine area municipalities considering a similar move, the Greater Portland Council of Governments has been working on a model ordinance for all to use, to prevent a patchwork of dissimilar rules for businesses to follow in neighboring communities. Gailey said he got an email from the organization on May 11 looking to schedule a sit-down of all cities and towns involved.

 Discussion of how to address rising sea levels. Gailey wrote the issue is “waiting for final determination from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) regarding updated flood zone maps.

 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. Gailey said this issue is not ready to be scheduled as he is “waiting for (the) Thirlmere lawsuit to conclude.”

 A debate on the need for local air quality monitoring. Gailey’s memo to the council said this issue is “waiting on contact from the (Environmental Protection Agency).”

 New rules requiring city inspection of multi-family homes before any transfer of ownership. A draft ordinance for this topic, driven by the 2014 death of five young adults in a Portland fire ignited by a cigarette in a code-deficient apartment house, is still being hashed out by city staff, Gailey said.

 A hearing stemming from the ongoing tar sands debate, to determine if local oil companies have the financial wherewithal to decommission their oil storage tanks, or to respond appropriately to any significant accident or spill. Gailey’s only comment to councilors on this topic was: “Not ready.”

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