2016-01-01 / Front Page

2015: A look back at the year’s stories

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

News stories come, and news stories go, sometimes with explosive effect. But the top local news stories of 2015 were more than just figuratively explosive, and they had power enough to fill headlines throughout the year. Here is a rundown of what the Sentry thinks were the top five stories of the year:

Propane

Fear of a possible explosion at Rigby Yard, should a propane storage and distribution complex be allowed, have fueled debate in South Portland all year long.

The fight to nix the facility has been waged since February by City Councilors Eben Rose and Brad Fox.

Rose was first to raise a red flag one year ago, following an initial appearance by Oklahoma-based NGL Supply Terminal Co. before the planning board. At the time, he pointed out NGL’s plans for three storage tanks holding 60,000 gallons of propane each were in conflict with city codes, which since the 1990s have prohibited installation of new above-ground storage tanks holding more than 25,000 gallons. Another code bars local storage of any fuel or “illuminating gas” in amounts that exceed 10,000 cubic feet.

Rose, a concerned citizen at the time, continued a full-court press of emails when the city’s code enforcement officer, Pat Doucette, issued an interpretation claiming the rules did not apply because propane is stored under pressure, rendering the gas into a liquefied state. Continued pressure from Rose over the spring forced the city to hire an outside consultant to render an opinion on Doucette’s interpretation. In a June 4 letter, Portland engineering firm Woodard and Curran said NGL’s tanks, as proposed, would always have enough gas in them to trigger the cubic-foot limit contained in city codes.

NGL, in search of a new home by spring 2016 after being forced out of its longtime home in Portland by expansion of the International Marine Terminal, downsized its plan and tried again. Rose rode his environmental activism into office in November, by which time Fox was in the forefront with a public relations campaign raising awareness of the project and the perceived dangers in case of an industrial accident, given the proximity of residential neighborhoods.

Fox eventually charted twin courses to derailing the NGL project, proposing a moratorium based on the city’s land use ordinances and a tightening of fire codes. A botched vote by Rose at his first council meeting in December forced him to call for reconsideration, when the moratorium was voted down despite having support enough to pass in its first reading. That measure is not due to go to the planning board in early January, before returning to the council. Meanwhile, the fire codes were debated in a city workshop Monday, Dec. 28

Gun club

While some South Portland residents feared one big explosion, it was a barrage of smaller ordinance that had Cape Elizabeth residents on edge.

Spurwink Rod & Gun Club has operated out of a valley off Sawyer Road since 1954. However, what was then a rural area of farflung farms has become a bit of a boomtown. In recent years, the club has come under criticism by residents of the nearby Cross Hill neighborhood, a subdivision of highend homes that began to spring up in the 1990s. By 2009, there were complaints of not just noise, but bullets coming from the firing range. Tensions continued to mount when the town council was asked to play intermediary. In March 2014 the council adopted a shooting range ordinance as part of a compromise measure. Although state law prohibits the town from taking action against an existing firing range based on noise, it can impose rules based on safety concerns and regulate general operating guidelines. Among the ordinance provisions was the creation of a new firing range committee to oversee municipal licensing of the club for the first time, after six decades of operation. After months of debate and a few committee meetings that struggled to maintain civility, the committee voted 4-1 on June 8 to recommend to the town council that it grant the club an operating license.

However, the recommendation was made with an ordinanceimposed deadline looming, and with the only safety report on hand a brief commissioned and paid for by the gun club before public review began. A third party report commissioned by Town Manager Michael McGovern, who initially had trouble finding anyone to do the job, was delivered in draft form July 23. The next day, based on what that report said, Police Chief Neil Williams shut down the club’s firing range.

That report initially put issuance of the club’s operating license in doubt. However, at an Oct. 14 meeting, the town council voted unanimously to grant an operating license to the gun club, with the provision that live fire not resume until deemed safe by both a range inspector and the town’s code enforcement officer. That condition was met last week on the club’s shortest, 25-yard firing line. Meanwhile, it continues to work toward upgrades needed to reopen the entire facility.

The work that has been accomplished at the gun club was made possible largely by donated labor and materials. That can-do attitude got an extra shot during the fall, when the Spurwink clubhouse was invaded by a swarm of honeybees. After a couple attempts by a professional apiarist, the bees were lured out of the clubhouse walls and into a series of temporary hives, in which they were transported away unharmed.

Tough talk

Meanwhile the South Portland protracted propane battle buzzed along. Over the course of the year, Fox, a city councilor, kept up a barrage of emails sharing news stories and other bytes of info about the dangers of liquefied petroleum.

Eventually, Councilor Claude Morgan publicly chastised Fox, accusing him of violating state public access laws by lobbying his peers outside of official meetings, and by using a private email account, a direct violation of council policy. Fox defended himself by saying he was only sharing information, not lobbying, and that he copied the press on his emails.

However, City Attorney Sally Daggett said copying the press on emails did not make Fox’s actions legal. Daggett later conducted a two-hour training session on Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, alongside state Ombudsman Brenda Kielty.

However, it may have been Morgan who had the last word, referring to Fox’s attempts to sway opinion and action on the NGL project, “the most amateur attempts to block a project I have ever seen.”

New fuel

After more than a year of anticipation and a slow slog though requisite prep work, redevelopment of the former National Guard Armory building on Broadway became a reality in November. The building had been an albatross around the city’s neck almost from the moment it bought the property in 2006. Several redevelopment and rental efforts failed, while the dream of turning the building into a new city hall never got off the ground.

By mid-2014 the city council had thrown in the towel and announced plans to sell the building. In November 2014, Priority Real Estate Group of Topsham agreed to buy the building from the city for $700,000.

While Priority will make way for 10 bays of gas pumps by demolishing the main 25,000-square-foot section of the armory – an expansive space once used for vehicle storage, but also well-remembered to locals as the site of community dances and basketball games – it will save the two-story armory office facing Broadway, known as the Head House, turning it into a convenience store and office space.

The development has been widely celebrated, both for the efforts to preserve the historic art deco façade of the Head House, and because most South Portland residents agree a gas station is needed on the eastern side of the city.

Turnover

While many of the other top stories of

2015 were explosive, or had the potential to be so, or at least made a public flash, one story snuck though the undercurrents – the turnover of top personnel at South Portland City Hall.

The retirement ball got going in 2013 with the exit retirement of Transportation Director Tom Meyers, who was replaced with an interim, Arthur Handman, who remains a contract employee while the city waits to see how regionalization efforts with Portland and other local communities shake out.

Around that same time Fire Chief Kevin Guimond also retired, but stayed on as a contract employee. He then retired for good in November as the tide of retirements began to rise into a genuine swell.

School Superintenent Suzanne Godin retired at the end of the school year in June and was replaced by Ken Kunin, a former school administrator in Portland who was most recently principal at the American Overseas School of Rome.

Meanwhile, Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings crossed the river in June to take the top job in Portland City Hall. He was replaced in September with Joshua Reny, the former town manager of Fairfield.

In October, longtime city clerk Susan Mooney retired, with Emily Carrington taking over. She was most recently the campus operations administrator and assistant to the president of Kaplan University.

Finally, South Portland’s lead assessor of more than 30 years, Elizabeth Sawyer, announced her retirement last month, ending her tenure this week, while Parks and Recreation Director Rick Towle left Dec. 1 after having been placed on paid leave for reasons not revealed, before submitting his resignation.

In all, six high-level positions in South Portland have changed hands since June – make it seven since 2013, counting Meyers. The city is still looking to fill three of those spots.

Still, the wave of departures was not unexpected. When Meyers retired, City Manager Jim Gailey said he saw the writing on the wall, with several key staffers approaching retirement age. After years of little movement on the payroll, Gailey instituted an annual leadership academy to help train staffers to step up, if not to top-level jobs, then at least to interim positions of authority. Since then, 45 city employees have graduated from the course.

Many of these stories will continue to develop in 2016 and we invite you to send in letters to the editor with your predictions for how events will or should, unfold. Write to editor@inthesentry.com.

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