2016-02-26 / Front Page

Knightville traffic debate unsnarls

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After more than four years of fussing that has pitted businesses in South Portland’s historic neighborhood against residents of the area, two lanes of traffic may soon be reopened on Ocean Street, in part because the city disregarded its own ordinances when laying out parking there.

Following a $3.6 million sewer upgrade in the area in 2012, the city rebuilt Ocean Street in Knightville to include wide sidewalks – needed, City Manager Jim Gailey said at the time, to keep plows from running into buildings – along with amenities such as trees and new LED street lights.

However, wider sidewalks meant a narrower roadway and the city’s engineering firm recommended changing on-street parking from angled spaces to parallel spots. That resulted in more parking spots than had been on the street previously, but spread the spaces out farther up the street. Business owners complained and, as a compromise, the city agreed to retain angled spots, albeit angled in the other direction and painted both wider and longer, in keeping with modern state and federal safety standards. That made the travel lane narrower still and, so, the city council voted on Sept. 10, 2012 to limit traffic on the single block between Legion Square and D Street to one lane directed in a one-way pattern, away from the square.

In response, residents of the area complained, saying that would funnel traffic onto the side streets, which were not built to accommodate the increased volume. Things went back and forth until 2014 when then-Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings created an ad hoc advisory committee made of business owners and residents, designed to reach a compromise solution. And then debate went back and forth some more.

Finally, at a Jan. 13 meeting, the committee reached a final recommendation to the city council, although it was one that few committee members were happy with.

“The city screwed this up when they designed it, and the businesses are paying for the mistake the city made because they didn’t consult the businesses before they put a bunch of granite in the street,” Paul Trusiani said at that meeting (a quote incorrectly attributed in Sentry coverage to Michael Drinan).

Trusiani, like most at that meeting, backed returning the street to its original configuration.

“No one even talks about, take a jackhammer out, cut the sidewalks back, and then we stop fighting with each other,” he said.

The compromise was a plan to replace the angled parking with spots perpendicular to the sidewalk. That would have left enough space to restore two lanes of traffic, but only if the city spent about $36,000 to remove bump-outs and reposition street lights on the opposite side of the street.

Although described by Drinan as “the best imperfect solution,” that was the choice of committee members. However, in a memo to the city council, Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said that option was a non-starter in the eyes of city staffers. Besides posing a safety risk, it was, he said, “impractical and would create more problems than solutions.”

The committee recommendation was due to be taken up in a city council workshop session on Monday. But then, over the weekend, an email went out from Deake Street resident Natalie West.

A former attorney who was at the forefront of the movement to ban tar sands from South Portland – she helped draft the first version of an ordinance to do so – West was asked by some Knightville residents to review city ordinances that pertained to parking.

What she found was something that appears to have slipped by the notice of most city officials. An ordinance line dated to 1966 states, “No vehicle shall stand or be parked diagonally upon any street within the city.”

“Staff ignored the city’s own ordinance and let the council enact an invalid parking scheme along Ocean [Street],” West wrote. “The city wasted thousands and thousands of dollars of taxpayer money by this sort of poor governance.

At Monday’s council workshop, both Gailey and Mayor Tom Blake issued mea culpas.

“As a manager, I need to apologize,” Gailey said, offering that the council should have voted to change the ordinance to allow for the angled parking, which was no longer grandfathered once the street was rebuilt.

In an email to city councilors sent Saturday, Feb. 20, Gailey said it was unclear whether angled parking existed on Ocean Street prior to 1997, when reconstruction of the Casco Bay Bridge was completed and the roundabout was added at Legion Square.

“The hurdle is that we have no historical knowledge in either public works or engineering due to [the fact] employees in both departments were not here or not in an administrative function back in the ‘90s,” Gailey wrote.

Perhaps ironically, given that she is in the news for other reasons this week, Rosemarie De Angelis was the lone dissenter in 2012 when the city council decided to institute the one-way traffic pattern, to allow for retention of angled parking. However, the existing 1966 ordinance was not raised at the time. Instead, De Angelis railed against her peers for disregarding safety recommendations made by Sebago Technics, the city’s engineering firm, in the face of popular sentiment.

“It was not a smart choice to do what we did,” she said at the time, “but people panicked over 96 pages of emails that were primarily not from residents – they were out-of-towners. We made a stupid choice.”

On Monday, most city councilors, including three on the council in 2012, expressed support for returning Ocean Street to two-way traffic, with parallel parking on both sides of the street.

“We did say we would relook at this in a year. We didn’t, and we were wrong,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

“I’m thankful for the do-over,” Councilor Patti Smith said.

The change to two-way would reduce the number of parking spaces along the side of Ocean Street facing Smaha’s Market from 15 to nine, including one motorcycle space.

However, a traffic study commissioned for the ad hoc committee showed that existing parking spots are going unused on Ocean Street, with shoppers being apparently reticent to park farther up the street and walk to various stores.

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