2017-07-14 / Front Page

Open space plan takes root in city

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Participating in a check passing ceremony July 5 at South Portland City Hall are, from left, South Portland Land Trust Program Manager Dugan Murphy, Kevin Adams, director of the city department of parks and recreation, Mayor Patti Smith, City Manager Scott Morelli, land trust president Kate Lewis, and Sharon Newman, a past president of Congregation Bet Ha’am. The land trust gave $55,866 from a fund of nearly $100,000 raised almost entirely by members of the Jewish congregation to build a playground in Sawyer Park, at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets. The new equipment is expected to be in place by September. (Duke Harrington) Participating in a check passing ceremony July 5 at South Portland City Hall are, from left, South Portland Land Trust Program Manager Dugan Murphy, Kevin Adams, director of the city department of parks and recreation, Mayor Patti Smith, City Manager Scott Morelli, land trust president Kate Lewis, and Sharon Newman, a past president of Congregation Bet Ha’am. The land trust gave $55,866 from a fund of nearly $100,000 raised almost entirely by members of the Jewish congregation to build a playground in Sawyer Park, at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets. The new equipment is expected to be in place by September. (Duke Harrington) SOUTH PORTLAND — After several years on the backburner, the South Portland City Council has decided the time is now to adopt an open space strategic plan.

At a July 10 workshop, the council agreed it should create a special ad hoc committee, with members nominated jointly by the city’s conservation commission and the South Portland Land Trust. That vote is now expected to come at the July 17 council meeting, City Manager Scott Morelli said.

At that meeting, the number of members to be appointed will be set. Once selected, the committee will work to develop a request for proposal (RFP) and hire a consultant to work with it to develop a long-term open space plan. Once adopted by the council, that plan, which is expected to target properties to be preserved as green spaces free of development, would get folded into the city’s comprehensive plan.

Mayor Patti Smith said she presented the item for consideration because the city has not been able to tackle the task on its own.

“I really felt over the years that we’ve needed help. It’s clear that our staff, our planning staff in particular, is very busy and lean,” she said. “I’m not sure that we have the expert on staff right now to help us with this project. Whether it’s right or wrong, we don’t have the capacity.”

The first general member of the audience at Monday’s workshop to rise in support of the plan was a familiar face to the council — former councilor and three-term Mayor Tom Blake.

“When the question is asked of our citizens, without fail the number one desire they want from their community is always more open space, more parks, more recreation,” he said.

Blake noted that “considerable public dissent,” had arisen in recent years over development proposals in South Portland, some hatched by the council itself, giving a list that included conflicts surrounding Sawyer Park, Sawyer Marsh and the former Hamlin School.

“The creation of a new plan can ensure that we avoid these unhealthy situations that we’ve faced over the past few years,” Blake said.

In 2015, the conservation commission was asked to update a similar plan created in 2001, but the volunteer group eventually decided the task was too big to complete on its own, given the many other responsibilities with which it is charged. Blake also noted that the 2001 plan was never formally adopted by the city council. As such, no action was ever taken on the list of lots worth preserving and many fell to subsequent development.

“That plan actually served as an inventory for developers. It backfired on us,” Blake said.

“I think time is of the essence here,” conservation commission vice-chairman Dan Hogan said. “There is a lot of development going on now. I think we need to get this work started very soon.”

However, City Planner Tex Haeuser pointed out that eventually folding an open space plan into South Portland’s comprehensive plan does not, by itself, block individual lots from commercial or residential construction.

“I think the bottom line remains that if the city wants to prevent development of certain property, the rights have to be acquired, and they have to be purchased,” he said. “So, if what we’re talking about is a renewed effort and a raising of open space as a priority, then I think at the top of that list should be the city putting up a large amount of money, to be able make a meaningful dent in creating more open space.”

On that note, Councilor Claude Morgan said the creation of an open space plan with an inventory of potentially sensitive green areas worth preserving does not constitute a shopping list for future councils.

“This doesn’t mean we are putting a bull’s-eye on them and saying these are the lots the city is looking to acquire,” he said. “It’s not like this is a set up war plans under which we are going to march forth and kind of seize land.”

Morelli said $30,000 is available to hire a consultant, using interest accrued in an unspecified TIF (tax increment financing) district account. By the July 17 meeting, Morelli saod, he will have details on the exact amount in the fund and the account from which the dollars would be derived.

But questions remained for some members of the council.

Councilor Linda Cohen called adoption of an open space plan “long overdue,” but said she envisioned it stopping short at an inventory of city-owned lots that should be kept green.

“I don’t have much interest in going beyond that, to looking at any private piece of property,” she said. “Maybe we do that at some point in the future, but I think we have our plate full right now just deciding what to do with cityowned property.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher questioned if hiring a consultant to help prepare the plan would be a one-time expense, or an outlay preparatory to an annual line item to track and manage open space.

But Councilor Eben Rose, who likewise declared himself “totally in support” of crafting an open space plan, said it should be the work of city staff, rather than a hired gun.

“I’m a little confused as to why we always go to outside consultants and pay for things we already should have full capacity for,” he said. “Why don’t we have everything the conservation commission is asking for as an ongoing thing? We have a planning department. Shouldn’t we already have a good inventory of city-owned property? My understanding is that’s what a planning department should be doing anyway.”

Rose also questioned the need to appoint members to a new group, when drafting an open space plan would seemingly fall within the purview of the conservation commission.

“I guess I’m not understanding why, when every time an actual issue comes up, we go to create an ad hoc committee,” he said. “We have already a standing committee that really could take charge of this.”

But Cohen reiterated that the commission had previously punted on the job.

“Right or wrong, we don’t have the staff right now in the planning department to take this on,” she said.

Commission chairman Barbara Dee said the group also felt the work should fall to a larger group, to include other interested parties within the city.

“The open space plan is such a comprehensive piece of the city that in order to move forward, I strongly believe we need to have a bigger stakeholder group,” she said. “I don’t think the conservation commission members alone should be responsible for developing the RFP.”

“I don’t want this to be derailed. I’m actually looking for a faster way to do this.” Rose replied.

Cohen noted that if the council were to hire additional staff for the planning department allowing it to tackle things like development and maintenance of open space strategies, it would mean hitting taxpayers for costly benefits packages as well as additional salaries. The eventual cost, she said, would far eclipse the $30,000 or so to be paid to a consultant. The ad hoc committee that would do most of the work and report back to the city council with a recommended plan would be all volunteers, Cohen observed.

“It’s not costing us anything. We’re not paying these people,” she said.

In the end, the council decided the time had come to adopt a formal strategy for preserving open space, nearly 20 years after it first tried to do so.

“I think open space is more important to our mental health and our physical health that we realize,” Councilor Sue Henderson said. “This is really big to our quality of life. I support this with all my heart.”

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

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