2016-01-15 / Front Page

Planning board votes against moratorium

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Despite two earlier setbacks, a proposal to build a liquefied petroleum gas depot in the Rigby Yard rail station got a new life Tuesday when the planning board voted 6-1 to recommend that the city council not adopt a proposed moratorium on development of propane storage and distribution facilities.

That moratorium had been proposed by City Councilor Brad Fox as a way to slow a development application submitted by NGL Supply Terminal Co., which is being forced out of its longtime home on the Portland waterfront by expansion of the International Marine Terminal.

NGL, which plans to lease 10 acres at Rigby Yard from Pan Am Railways for its new home, first submitted an application to South Portland on Jan. 20, 2015. However, that touched off pushback from residents, first over concerns the proposal did not mesh with city code, and later, as awareness of the project grew, over neighborhood fears of industrial accidents.

“To be honest, this whole thing is scary as hell,” said Skillings Street resident Stacy Warren, during Tuesday’s hearing. “If this thing goes through, we’re going to move.”

The city council had voted 4-3 on Dec. 21 to approve the moratorium, triggering the planning board hearing under state law. The board recommendation now goes back to the council, which needs to find five yes votes for final passage. The moratorium is technically a zoning amendment, for which a super-majority is required under the city charter.

However, NGL’s application has hit a roadblock even without the delaying action of a moratorium.

In a letter sent to NGL on Jan. 8, city Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucettte rejected its application, which had been set for a hearing before the planning board Jan. 12, following the Nov. 23 final submission of its plans, deemed complete by city staff.

In the denial letter, Doucette said South Portland city code allows no more than 74,805 gallons of liquid propane gas to be stored overnight. NGL’s project, downgraded from its initial proposal for six 60,000-gallon storage tanks, was for a single 24,000-gallon tank augmented by up to 16 30,000-gallon rail cars, for a total of 504,000 gallons of LP gas storage.

NGL initially said it planned to appeal Doucette’s decision. However, a company spokesman said Tuesday the plan now is to “update our proposal so that no rail cars remain in the facility overnight, thus not running afoul of the 24-hour storage ordinance.”

“We are heartened by the Planning Board’s decision,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, regional operations manager for NGL Energy Partners, following Tuesday’s vote. “As South Portland’s former fire chief recently stated, the city has all the codes in place to carefully and comprehensively evaluate our application and create a safe project, making any moratorium unnecessary.

“We remain committed to operating a state-of-the-art facility in South Portland that keeps over 50,000 homes, schools and businesses warm during winter and operating efficiently all year,” Fitzgerald said.

However, one significant hurdle remains. During a sometimes tense debate on Dec. 11, the city council charged planning staff to review and polish a fire code amendment submitted by Fox. That new rule, as drafted for Fox by Franklin Terrace resident George Corey, would bar any propane storage depot from going in within 1,257 feet of “critical infrastructure,” including schools, hospitals and government buildings.

If brought back to the council in its current form, the rule would prevent NGL from building at Rigby Yard, due to the proximity of the Cash Corner Fire Station.

Reworking of the fire code amendment had been fasttracked and is slated to return to a council agenda as soon as Jan. 20 or Feb. 1

Still, while all but two speakers during Tuesday’s two-hour hearing testified in favor of the development moratorium, planners said that track to blocking the NGL project at least should be taken off the table.

“I do not believe this project would overburden our public facilities. Our fire department has said they can handle this operation and the storage of propane in this city,” said planning board member Lisa Boudreau, citing one of two moratorium purposes allowed in state statute.

The other is concern for public safety. However, Boudreau said those fears, often cited by Fox and others, are overblown.

“I do see change in your neighborhood,” Boudreau told the Thornton Heights residents opposed to the NGL project, “but I don’t see the fear you see.”

Others on the board agreed, or else cited concern a moratorium might be grounds for a lawsuit for unfairly changing the rules on NGL “midstream.” However, one member of the board, Kathleen Phillips, lives near Rigby Yard and said she was moved by both the concern for a devastating explosion, as most speakers suggested could happen, as well as the admission by planning director Tex Haeuser that the governing zoning rules are “convoluted, confusing and in conflict with one another.”

The struggle to understand those rules, many of which were hastily added to city codes in the 1990s during a battle to keep Irving Oil from building more storage, is one reason why review of NGL’s project has taken so long, Haueser said.

For Phillips, that was reason enough to apply the brakes.

“I have no objection to taking time to get things right, and to get them right the first time,” she said.

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