2017-05-26 / Front Page

City looks to future of aging population

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council has taken the first step in what is expected to be a years-long process aimed at assuring all elderly residents are able to age in place safely, with dignity and can live independently in their own homes for as long as possible.

At its May 22 scheduling workshop, the council agreed to a future discussion on a proposal by Councilor Maxine Beecher to create an ad hoc senior citizens advisory committee.

Under a new process being used by the council, Beecher submitted a workshop proposal form to raise the issue. Because that form had a pair of names attached as cosponsors, it automatically had the second it needed for discussion, and the remainder of the council readily agreed it was a worthy topic for a future workshop. Mayor Patti Smith said it could make the schedule for a first hearing as soon as August or September.

The draft charge of the proposed new committee, to be debated at that time, would conduct needs assessment of each age group (i.e. those aged 60-69, aged 70-79, aged 80-90, etc.) and dwelling type (such as apartment dweller, home owner, condo owner, subsidized housing resident and the like.)

Under Beecher’s vision, the committee would also identify current programs in place that meet needs of older adults, analyze gaps between elder needs and available services, determine what partnerships the city can enter into, and what other options it has to meet needs, while also crafting a means to let seniors know of all the programs and aid open to them.

The committee would be asked to deliver a report of its recommendations to the city council within 16 months of its creation.

“We want to do an assessment and inventory of what’s needed and what’s available and set some goals,” Beecher said. “There are a whole lot of services throughout the city. We think it’s important to get our act together, to know who’s doing what, and how best to utilize them.”

“We think we can get a good, small committee to start with, and then bring in experts as needed,” said one of Beecher’s co-sponsors, Councilor Susan Henderson. “There are a lot of resources out there. AARP is already working with 38 communities in the state. We would have access to guidance from them. So, I think we would not be inventing the wheel. But it’s not a quick thing. We’ve asked for 16 month to do the assessment, but in talking to AARP, they said maybe two years (to conduct an assessment), and then three years to develop an action plan.

“They suggested taking this in small bites, going slowly, so, this is our very first bite,” Henderson said.

And, while getting a workshop scheduled may indeed be the first bite, Beecher’s other co-sponsor, Councilor Claude Morgan, said there will be plenty to digest along the way.

“This is (about) the shedding of the baby boomers,” he said. “There is an element of our community that is aging and moving out of the workplace. This will mean a profound change over time in demands for different kinds of city services. So, I think the sooner the city gets its fingers on the right buttons, the better we are going to be able to provide those services in the future.”

The other workshop item presented Monday was sponsored by Councilor Eben Rose, who said it was “a detailed and wonkish issue.”

In the proposal form submitted May 17, Rose said he wants to initiate a policy discussion on ending the planning department practice of introducing changes to city zoning codes through the planning board.

Under current practice, a zoning amendment – such as the recent introduction of a commercial suburban district near the Maine Mall, with greater allowed housing density, or the so-called inclusionary zoning that would make developers reserve a set number of units at “affordable” rates — have started life before the planning board, then gone to a city council workshop with the board’s recommendation attached. The idea then goes back to the planning board for the state-required public hearing, or, if the council has made significant changes, to start at square one. That is sometimes then followed by a second city council workshop or a pair of council readings bookended by a public hearing of its own.

In his workshop proposal form, Rose said there is no good reason to start the process with the planning board instead of the city council.

“The planning board . . . possesses no more specialized training in land use or knowledge of code than the council,” Rose wrote. “The planning board’s advisory role on any draft ordinance should therefore take place only after first consideration by the council.

“To do otherwise curtails the likelihood of any councilor’s success in gaining support for amendments against the dual influence of bandwagon momentum from prior planning board support, and reluctance to burden the planning board schedule if substantively amended,” Rose wrote, raising the specter of a rubber stamp bureaucracy.

Rose also said changes in policy should not start with a body like the planning board. While some city committees exist primarily to make suggestions for council action, the planning board is “a compliance body,” whose primary function is to ensure development proposals meet the letter of the law.

“This is no disrespect to them or their knowledge and training, but they are not elected and they are not accountable,” Rose said. “They cannot be unelected if somebody does not like a policy they promote or vote for. In fact, in practice, we respect reappointments pretty much for life.”

In addition to creating momentum for a code change that could cause the council to abdicate its deliberative responsibility, the added step of starting staff proposals at the planning board can “in the best-case scenario, end up wasting the applicants time,” Rose said.

“And in the worst case, we have the planning board setting policy,” he added.

Councilor Brad Fox seconded Rose’s workshop topic idea.

“I think it would be a worthwhile discussion. We should probably talk about it,” he said.

Smith did not express hope of getting to the issue much before October.

Workshop agenda items

The city council has 11 items on its workshop schedule, in addition to what was added Monday.

On June 12, the council will discuss a proposed change in zoning for the city’s Knightville district that would enable a plan put forth by the South Portland Housing Authority to create a 48-unit, five-story housing complex to be built at 51 Ocean St. The building would be 55 feet tall. Buildings in Knightville are currently capped at 50 feet, while the half-acre parcel could contain no more than 13 living units, as the rules now stand.

The June 12 meeting also will include a demonstration by City Planer Tex Haeuser of a tool that City Manager Scott Morelli said is an app that will allow residents to give feedback on paper streets.

Paper streets are roads laid out as a part of subdivision plans but never built. Although never accepted by the city as public road, most have been retained as public rights-of-way. In some cases, the unbuilt streets are used as utility corridors, public trails, cut-throughs, by children walking to and from school and driveways.

In 1997 the Legislature passed a law erasing from the record, or “vacating,” any roads recorded in the registry of deeds before September 1987 but not actually built by September of that year. The law let municipalities retain “incipient dedication,” or rights, to any paper streets it specifically exempted from abandonment.

The city has a September deadline to either declare continued interest in the paper streets it held onto a decade ago, or else allow them to fade away, in which case ownership of the land would revert to abutting landowners as far as the “centerline” of the road.

According to Community Planner Steve Pulio, South Portland has 80 paper streets it has to decide on by the September deadline.

The June 26 council workshop will include that month’s review of the upcoming workshop schedule, as well as any new topic ideas submitted by councilors, as well as consideration of a proposed paid position of economic development director.

Currently, economic development falls under the purview of Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, who serves as staff liaison to the city’s volunteer economic development committee. One item in the budget proposal for the coming year is a $100,000 line item dedicated to hiring a fulltime economic development director. As an alternative, councilors say, that money could go toward reestablishing the committee as a quasi-municipal nonprofit economic development corporation. The workshop session will afford councilors a chance to spar over which option, if either, to pursue.

The following workshop on July 10 will be given over to consideration of a “complete streets” ordinance, designed to rededicate the city’s efforts to make way for bicycles, pedestrians and other forms of alternative transportation alongside cars and trucks on city roadways.

After that, remaining workshop items have no set hearing date, although three items have been declared “ready to go” by Morelli.

One is a idea presented by Rose and Fox, on the docket since Feb. 9, to craft new council policies and/or ordinances governing contact between individual councilors and the city attorney.

Another is Smith’s proposal, added to the workshop list April 24, to conduct an annual goal-setting exercise. The current schedule indicates that item could be added as an additional topic to either of the June workshop meetings.

The last shovel-ready topic is a proposal suggested on May 16 by the city’s information technology director, Chris Dumais, to overhaul South Portland’s cable television ordinance.

Also due for an overhaul, per a May 10 request by Town Clerk Emily Scully and Police Chief Ed Googins, is a need to update city ordinances governing pawnbrokers and second-hand shops. That’s among four items less ready for prime time, deemed by Morelli to be “in progress.”

On that list is one item tentatively scheduled for workshop sessions in July. Sponsored by Smith, it would see the council meet with the open space planning committee to discuss hiring a consultant to create a new open space plan for the city.

Also on the books is a plan to create a master plan for maintenance and expansion of the Portland Street Pier. That project, on hold since Jan. 22, is awaiting word on a Coastal Program Grant, expected to be awarded sometime this summer.

Finally, on Feb. 9, Rose and Fox jointly sponsored a workshop proposal on their idea to ban “single use” plastic bottles from sale in South Portland.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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