2017-02-03 / Front Page

Conservation commission plans public forum

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After years of admittedly sputtering along with a merry-go-round membership, South Portland Conservation Commission members say not only is it now leaner, meaner and greener, it’s ready to tackle its mission head on.

The commission made a presentation on its recent activities during a city council workshop on Monday, Jan. 30. According to commission member Dan Hogan, it’s an audience the group has been trying to secure for more than a year. Commission members kept it simple, focusing on four main points, but what was said came as a revelation to councilors nonetheless.

“To be blunt, I’ve learned more about your group (tonight) than I ever knew, and I’ve been on the council forever,” Councilor Maxine Beecher told the six commission members at the meeting. “It seems to me that you ought to be more visible. I don’t think the public knows even as much as I knew.”

Going public took up two of the four talking points, as the commission unveiled plans for an April 19 public forum as well as a grant-giving initiative to involve residents in helping to care for city streams and open spaces. However, before that happens, the commission had what might have seemed to some like an odd request – it wants the city council to slash its membership in half.

In January 2015, the commission asked that it be increased to 14 members. However, according to commission member Bob McKeagney, he’s the only person who remains from that time.

The city council never managed to fill all 14 seats and, in September, the commission experienced what Chairman Megan Sheehan termed “a mass exodus.” It is now down to just seven active members. However, Sheehan said, those who remain prefer to stand pat, and not have the council fill most of the vacant seats.

“We have found (fewer members) to be quite efficient in terms of how we are able to operate and communicate and move forward on the priorities with which we have been mandated,” she said.

Sheehan asked that the council fill two of the vacant seats, then cap commission membership at nine. No action was taken, but most city councilors seemed to support the request.

“You tell us what you think will serve you best,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

Along that line, the commission asked the council to create a new ad hoc group to create an open space plan, and to provide it with a professional administrator. Commission member Barbara Dee has served on an open space planning committee at work since August on identifying city-owned lots that should be retained as public spaces. However, she said there is a need to broaden membership of the group and to charge it with creation of a formal plan to maintain the properties, as well as other open lands now in private ownership.

“We really do feel that there are spaces that are not protected and that we can do a better job of that in South Portland,” she said.

Mayor Patti Smith was enthusiastic about that idea.

“Some of us who have been here for a bit have already heard this request,” she said. “It’s no small task and it’s a regret of mine (that it has not been done). We need to create an open space plan and attach it to our comprehensive plan. To be a city without one, it just sends messages.”

Smith, who will be up against a city charter imposed term limit in November, after three consecutive terms, totaling nine years on council, said she hopes to see work begin on an open space plan before she leaves office.

“I’ve been here too long and seen the wheels spin without it ever get off the ground,” she said. “I’d love to see it before I term out. I support it (with) whatever resources you might need.”

Smith was more reticent however about a commission proposal to begin using more than $230,000 available in the city’s freshwater wetlands compensation fund to provide grants to community groups interested in launching small-scale water quality projects.

“We’ve spent very little of that in recent years,” McKeagney said, noting that the money comes from fees paid by developers who disturb wetlands during construction projects.

“What we are proposing is a first step to get on track with a real inventory of potential problem areas and projects we ought to take on with these funds,” he said. “We want to encourage individuals, service organizations, high school science classes, or any other person or people who can demonstrate they have a stake in the welfare of South Portland to step forward and develop a volunteer project, and we would provide resources out of the compensation fund for reasonable expenses and materials they might need.”

“Much of what needs to be done is not terribly complex. It just takes time and consistency and follow-through,” McKeagney said.

However, Smith sought to apply the brakes, noting that ordinance wording dictating use of the fund is fairly specific, and may need to be adjusted in order to accomplish the commission’s aim.

“At this point I don’t feel comfortable releasing those funds until we understand what the language really means,” she said.

However, Smith and other councilors supported the concept, in principle.

“This could really, really grow,” said Councilor Susan Henderson. “It’s extraordinarily exciting. The community is going to be helping the community without massive bureaucracy from the government. Young people are going to learn it’s not hopeless, that there are things they can do to help the environment.”

Finally, the commission said it has scheduled a community forum for April 19 at the high school to share information in the five streams running through South Portland that have been classified by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as “urban-impaired” water bodies.

“We want to let everyone know that everyone in South Portland lives in a watershed, that what happens in their yard affects that watershed, and that there is a need for the community to take action to protect our fresh water resources,” said commission member Jody Meredith.

“At that forum we hope to get enough people excited about what they can do to improve the quality of our fresh water resources,” McKeagney said.

The commission will stage the forum using a $1,500 grant from the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. Other partners in the event will include the South Portland Water Resources Protection Department, Maine DEP, and Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Monday’s workshop was, council members said, a plea for more attention and direction from the city council.

“We’ve really been shouting out into the distance and not hearing an echo,” Hogan said. “What we are really looking for rom the council is a sense of what’s going on with our mission.”

Councilors said the commission appears to be on the right track, and pledged both support and improved communication.

“Without our volunteer board and committees there’s no way the city council could do its work,” Cohen said.

Others at the meeting stressed that the conservation commission is not alone in its objectives, and can lean on other city committees, as well.

“I can’t help but think there is not only a tremendous opportunity for collaboration, not only between these two committees, but between all of the committees, probably,” said Jessica Williams, chairman of the energy and recycling committee.

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