2017-01-06 / Front Page

A look back

An update on the top stories of 2016
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

For South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, 2016 seemed to be a tale of both the little and the large, with stories that brought significant change by eking along in increments week after week, punctuated by surprise announcements that tipped our local world on its side.

Here is a run-down of some of the top stories of the year.

High-profile resignations

The biggest surprises on 2016 came in the form of resignations that promise to remake municipal administration in both South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

Cape school Superintendent Meredith Nadeau got the ball rolling in January, resigning from her position after fives year on the job to return to her native New Hampshire. The search for her replacement netted two finalists – RSU 10 superintendent Craig King and Steven Bailey, head of the Lincoln County School System. However, after the school board announced the pair as finalists, first Bailey, then King withdrew their names from consideration. With time running short until Nadeau’s July 1 departure, the school board hired Howard Colter, head of the Mount Desert Island school system, to serve as interim superintendent for the 2016-2017 school year. In November, the school board began its second attempt at securing a new superintendent, appointing members to advisory and interviewing committees. The deadline for applications came this week, on Jan. 6. Interviews are scheduled for the week of Jan. 23, with a selection expected by Feb. 13.

Meanwhile, in June, just as the Cape Elizabeth School board was settling on an interim superintendent, South Portland found itself starting down a similar non-starter path, when City Manager Jim Gailey resigned to become assistant manager of Cumberland County. Gailey had worked his entire career of more than 30 years with South Portland, rising up to city manager through the planning office in 2007 after starting while still a teen as a youth league coach in the recreation department. The city council hired Eaton Peabody to conduct the search for Gailey’s replacement, while hiring firm principle Don Gerrish as interim manager. By November, the council had settled on a new manager, naming Utah resident Edward Collins to the post. However, just two days after Collins’ name was announced he dashed off an email saying he didn’t want the job. That sent Eaton Peabody back to the drawing board. This week, Gerrish said six possible replacements had been selected from a field of 33 applicants. Applicant interviews with the city council will be held next week.

Then, in August, Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovern announced plans to retire. Having been hired as an assistant manager fresh out of college in 1978, McGovern rose to the top job in 1985, making him one of the longest-serving town managers in Maine, particularly in one municipal hall. In December, the town council announced its meeting chamber in that hall would be named in McGovern’s honor. The choice of McGovern’s replacement is down to two finalists – town assessor Matthew Sturgis and Naples Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak. Both candidates underwent final interviews this week. A council announcement is expected Jan. 9.

Just as the year was coming to a close, South Portland Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette announced her retirement after 30 years on the job.

However, there were some new hires, too. In March, Cape unveiled a plan to replace its harbormaster, announcing it would share Scarborough’s harbormaster, Ian Anderson. Then, in July, South Portland looked in-house following a nationwide search to replacing retired Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, selecting Deputy Chief Jim Wilson, a 20-year SPFD veteran, to wear the white helmet.

Going green

South Portland and Cape Elizabeth each took what they hoped to be significant steps toward ensuring a sustainable environment in 2016, acting on several fronts.

The year began, as most of 2015 had run, with a battle over a proposed propane distribution complex at the Rigby Rail Yard in South Portland. Neighbors of the project complained of a possible catastrophe in the event of any industrial mishap. However, what finally did in the project was a declaration that it did not meet city codes, despite the planning office having spent much of the previous year arguing it did.

In September, the South Portland council voted 6-1 to adopt a citywide ban on synthetic pesticides, after debating the proposal for several months. In its final form, the ordinance allows sale and purchase of chemical pest and weed killers, but only allows products classified as “minimum risk” by the Environmental Protection Agency for use within city limits. The new rules, which include creation of an advisory committee to field requests for exemptions, relies on attempts to educate the public over fines and other punitive measures, causing Councilor Linda Cohen to vote against it as, “unenforceable.” The ban goes into effect on city property May 1 of this year, and on private property May 1, 2018.

At year’s end, the city also instituted a program of “energy benchmarking” that will make owners of certain properties in the new Mill Creek Zoning district – also a 2016 creation, designed to spur mixed used development in the downtown shopping district – report energy and water usage in their buildings. After a year of reporting only compliance with the measure, the city will start releasing the energy usage data to the public, in hopes building owners will this become “incentivized” to make efficiency upgrades.

Meanwhile, in July, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council voted 4-3 to pledge $75,000 to help the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust buy a 23-acre parcel known as “Great Pond Preserve II.”

In December, Cape councilors followed South Portland’sleadfromlate2015byproposinga5cent fee on plastic shopping bags to encourage the use of reusable bags, and a total ban on polystyrene foam food containers. After going to the council’s ordinance sub-committee, the proposal should come up for a final vote early in the new year.

Development drama

One story that developed during the entire year was South Portland’s wrangling with so-called “infill development” – the construction of homes on lots that do not meet current minimum size standards.

Although former councilor Tom Blake claimed he and Cohen first asked to workshop the item in late 2015, the issue really came to a head in February, when Thirlmere Avenue resident Devin Deane won a Superior Court case over the construction of a home on an abutting property. That spurred council debate on the issue, work that spanned several workshops. At one point, the city began denying building permits until a decision could be reached on new standards. At a Nov. 28 workshop the council sent a new 24-page zoning package for development in its residential zones to the planning board for review. Meanwhile, after several delays, 2017 was scheduled to start with the Jan. 3 consent agreement between the city and Deane.

The city also spent the better part of 2016 working out a plan to spur development of affordable housing for low-income residents. After an ad hoc committee presented its recommendations, the council sent it back to work on ways to better guarantee renter protections. However, that did not stop Chris Kessler, who’s late 2015 presentation to the council instigated council interest in the issue, from resigning from the committee in frustration with its direction.

There were of course other stories that ran the gamut of calendar months, or else popped up here and there to captivate public attention, including the years-long Knightville parking saga, the city council fight over racial diversity in public appointments, which led to sensitivity training for the council as an as-yet unresolved civil rights case, and the creation of Sam DiPietro Park, in honor of the longtime city activist.

Many of these stories will continue to develop during the coming year, and we invite you to write in to tell us what you felt were the best and most important stories of 2016, and which ones you’d like to see updated, along with your predictions of what will feature in the headlines of 2017. Write to news@inthesentry.com

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