2017-12-29 / Front Page

2017: The Sentry’s year in review

By Michael Kelley and Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writers


Fort Williams Park, home of Portland Head Light, has, once again, been a topic of much conversation in town throughout 2017. Councilors recently approved changes to the park’s food vending program and are expected to act on a recommendation to hire a park manager and change off-leash dog regulations in the new year. (Russ Lunt courtesy photo) Fort Williams Park, home of Portland Head Light, has, once again, been a topic of much conversation in town throughout 2017. Councilors recently approved changes to the park’s food vending program and are expected to act on a recommendation to hire a park manager and change off-leash dog regulations in the new year. (Russ Lunt courtesy photo) CAPE ELIZABETH/SOUTH PORTLAND – A lot has happened in area over the last 12 months. The Sentry looks back at some of the most newsworthy stories listed below in no particular order, first in Cape Elizabeth, then in South Portland.

Cape Elizabeth hires new town manager for first time since mid- 1980s

In replacing 31-year town manager Michael McGovern, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council did not need to go far, looking just outside McGovern’s office door to tap Town Assessor Matthew Sturgis.

According to a Jan. 12 press release issued by the council, Sturgis packed up and moved offices on Jan. 30, following a formal council vote on the new hire Jan. 18. Sturgis will be paid $110,000 plus benefits in his new job, a little less than the $123,000 paid to McGovern.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to help out in a new capacity in this great community I’ve had the pleasure of working for these past 16 years,” Sturgis said at the time. “I’m really looking forward the next phase in my career. It’s a great town, and a great town council. Hopefully, the future is going to be very bright for all of us.”

Sturgis has been Cape’s tax assessor since 2001. In 2015, he also took on assessing duties for the town of Scarborough as part of a shared services agreement between the two towns.

A 1991 graduate of Trinity University in Texas, with a degree in philosophy and political science, Sturgis also is on the executive board of the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the Maine Leadership Board of the American Lung Association of New England.

Sturgis lives in Gray, where he has been on the town council since 2011. He was chairman until Jan. 17, when he tendered his resignation to focus on his new job in Cape Elizabeth.

A certified property appraiser with his own company, Sturgis Appraisals, Sturgis formerly lived in New Gloucester, where he also was chairman of its board of selectmen.

According to Don Gerrish of Eaton Peabody, the firm hired by the council to lead the town manager search, Sturgis beat out 38 applicants for the job.

Sturgis said last week that his first year as Cape Elizabeth Town Manager has flown by.

“It’s been a productive year. It’s gone by extremely fast due to some of the complex issues we have dealt with. Overall there’s been a lot of great things accomplished,” he said, highlighting repair work to Hill Way/Scott Dyer Road and the renovation of the recycling center on Dennison Drive.

“We have faced a lot of challenges along the way and have tried to meet that in a positive way,” Sturgis said of 2017. “We have worked well together and I think the council is positioned for another good year in 2018.”

Council reviews changes to Fort Williams management, unleashed dogs, vendor program

How to best manage Fort Williams Park has been a topic of conversation for the town council, and other groups, for much of 2017. Acting on recommendations from the Fort Williams Park Committee, the council made changes to how the food vending program will work for 2018. Changes include reducing the square footage of two of the four vending sites from 90 square feet to 50 square feet, while reducing the minimum bids at those sites from $4,000 to $2,000 and raising the minimum bid for the two other sites, occupied this summer by Bite into Maine and Gorgeous Gelato to $4,500 to include the electricity surcharge.

Committee members hope making the changes will attract a wider variety of food vendors to the park, such as a hot dog cart.

While the council made that change, the group is still reviewing a proposal from the park committee to ban unleashed dogs from the park’s soccer field and expand the off-leash dog area. That proposal has been sent back to the council’s ordinance committee for further refinement to clarify it is only unleashed dogs that are to be banned from the athletic fields, although some councilors have indicated a preference to keep all dogs off the field.

“What we decided was to eliminate dogs from the multipurpose playing field at the fort during the seasons in which children are playing on the field, or are scheduled to play on the field,” Fort Williams Park Committee Chairman Mark Russell told councilors in October.

While the dogs may be banned from the fields, the committee is also recommending expanding the area where dogs can run free.

“Because we are sensitive to their needs, we wanted to give (dog walkers) additional space in the park for dogs to run free, so we proposed to change the boundaries of the off-leash area and include a portion of the green, which is down by the lighthouse,” he added.

The council and park committee members are also considering hiring a park manager who would, in part, be in charge of the operations and maintenance of the park, overseeing the vending program and park rangers and scheduling event rentals and monitoring bus and trolley visits, which would free up Public Works Director Bob Malley to focus more on the town’s public works operations.

“As the use of the park continues to grow and grow and grow, we may be better served to work with a park director, who can manage that,” Town Manager Matt Sturgis said at an Oct. 2 town council workshop on the topic.

Sturgis said Malley is “about stretched as thin as he can” and the management tasks of Fort Williams Park are “pulling him away (from his public works duties) more and more on a consistent basis.”

Although it hasn’t come up for official vote at the council level, councilors seem to support the hiring of a park manager.

Council Chairman Jessica Sullivan said during a Sept. 28 workshop with park committee members, she felt “personally the time has come for that individual.”

However, the council decided to proceed regarding the issues of overuse at the park, the goal is to position Fort Williams better for the future and protect the scenic beauty on the property.

“We need to look toward the future to make sure it stays the beautiful place it is and we all enjoy so much,” councilor Jamie Garvin said at the workshop. “It is certainly one of the crown jewels on this community.”

The ordinance committee will take up the dog issue soon and Sturgis said he is set to update councilors on the proposal for the Fort Williams Park Manager prior to the council’s Jan. 8 meeting.

Debate on paper streets rages on

In August, the town council decided to reverse a decision it made in July and not start the process of vacating its rights to paper streets near Atlantic Place, Surfside Avenue, Lighthouse Point Road and since then the topic has taken up much of the council’s time between executive sessions and public meetings.

Councilor Penny Jordan, who asked her fellow councilors to rethink their decisions, said at the Aug. 14 town council meeting after some reflecting on the matter between July and August, “vacating the paper streets in question is actually counter to the goals of Cape Elizabeth to maintain open space areas for citizen to enjoy the vistas and the character of the town. Taking away public land and the public’s right is not in the public’s best interest.”

The topic has been before the council since last year. In October 2016, the council acted on 58 paper streets in town, retaining the rights to 32 of them, vacating seven of them and setting aside 19 of them for pedestrian or bicyclist use. At that meeting, the council pulled the three aforementioned papers streets out for individual review, deciding to extend their rights there and directed the conservation commission to look at the feasibility of trails on those properties, especially the Shore Acres paper streets.

Community members are divided as to what they want councilors to do, with some arguing the paper streets – streets included on maps and deeds, but never officially built or accepted by the town – are town property that needs to be retained. While others implore the council to vacate rights to the properties.

“You have put us at a crossroads. Your actions on these paper streets will decide if we are a town that acts in the best interest of the majority of residents or a town that acts in the best interest of small special interest groups,” Jim Morra told the council in August. “You’re deciding if we are a town that follows the American ideals of government: by the people, for the people.”

A group of residents have come together to form Save Our Shoreline Access Coalition, which is advocating for the council to accept the paper streets to provide shoreline access for all residents, not just those who abut the paper streets.

Andrew Ingalls, of Waumback Road, saw the issue a little differently. He said at a November meeting, the topic of paper streets has “completely turned our neighborhood upside down” and voiced his support for the council vacating their rights, which would keep people from accessing the paper streets.

Earlier this month, the council directed Town Manager Matt Sturgis to enter into an agreement with Brunswickbased Good Group Decision to bring the community together for two moderated discussions about paper streets.

Sturgis said last week the sessions will be held Thursday, Feb. 1 and Saturday, Feb. 3. The venue and times are still being worked on. Prior to the Jan. 8 meeting, Sturgis would like to have councilors meet with Good Group Decision members to talk about what they would like to see covered in the sessions.

Following incident, councilors adopt an inclusion ordinance

By a 5-2 vote at its June 12 meting, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council adopted a resolution welcoming all people to the community, pivoting back to language submitted by the Cape Diversity Coalition.

That group rose of in the wake of an incident at a Cape/Wells football game in town last year, involving racial slurs by middle school students of the two towns. The coalition asked the council to adopt a resolution of support for people of all ethnic backgrounds.

At a June 6 workshop, the council appeared to prefer an alternate resolution presented by Councilor Penny Jordan, with some members citing concern over “unintended consequences” of the original draft.

However, at the June 12 meeting, it was Jordan who moved to adopt a revised draft submitted by the coalition.

“I haven’t changed my mind because I have always supported a resolution,” she said. “My whole premise is about inclusion, and if you can create a resolution that achieves the objectives of inclusion, then I can go there,” she said.

Speakers from the Cape Diversity Coalition asked for support from the council in part because the resolution does single out specific groups of people.

“Our coalition brought this to your group, just as many other communities across our state and nation have brought this to their towns, because of a recognition in our current times, things are happening to marginalize populations that we need to name and address,” said Hemlock Hill Road resident Maureen Clancy. “Without naming things, without bringing this forward, then we’re ignoring the things that may exist in our community.”

The school board adopted a similar welcoming resolution, also drafted by the Cape Diversity Coalition, at its May 9 meeting.

Ocean House Road resident Mohammed Nasir Shir, now a member of the school board, reported to the council, as he had to the school board, that his children had been subject to verbal abuse on a school bus.

“I’m interested in this resolution to prove to my kids that there is hope, that there is democracy, and democracy does work in this town,” he said. “We want to take the negative energy and turn it around to a positive energy.”

Former councilor Kathy Ray and current council chairman Jessica Sullivan voted against adopting the resolution. Both said they supported the ideas contained in the resolution, but questioned whether the language submitted by the coalition could, by citing some groups, be interpreted as excluding others. Both also suggested it may be inappropriate for the town to make what can be perceived as a political statement.

However, council chairman at the time Jamie Garvin said he believed the council had a duty to act.

“I do think that one of our most fundamental functions is that of providing and modeling leadership for the community,” he said

“It’s acceptable in the fact that all we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s be nice,’” Councilor Caitlin Jordan said. “We’re not doing anything more.”

Cape Elizabeth School department welcomes new principals

School officials spent much of the summer trying to fill voids left by departing Pond Cove and Cape Elizabeth Middle School principals.

In August, the Cape Elizabeth School Board members hired former Falmouth assistant principal Jason Manjourides as Pond Cove Principal and Sarah Forrey-Pettit as Pond Cove Assistant Principal.

“We were very impressed with the application submitted by Jason Manjourides. Jason was the assistant principal at Falmouth Elementary School. We were very impressed by his experience at the school, primarily responsible for grades (kindergarten) to two and how connected he is to the children and supportive of the teachers,” said Interim Superintendent Howard Colter. “He is someone who is known to be accessible and responsive to the needs of parents and the community.”

Manjourides, who replaced Kelly Hasson, said he was attracted to the position in Cape Elizabeth because of the department’s “great reputation for academic excellence and for providing a quality experience for students.”

Colter said he was also impressed with Forrey-Pettit’s experience as an administrator and educator. Forrey-Pettit, who replaced Theresa Curran, had spent the last three years as the assistant principal in the Belmont and Somerville Public School System after serving as intern principal at Wellington Elementary School.

“She has a strong background with students with exceptional need and we feel she will be an asset to us and the larger community,” Colter said.

The board also hired Troy Eastman, who had served as principal at Oxford Hills Middle School for the last decade, to replace former Cape Elizabeth Middle School Principal Michael Tracy. Eastman started his education career as a special education teacher at Livermore Falls Middle School before transitioning to a special education teacher in Buckfield and then as an assistant principal for Raymond School Department.

“Troy is a seasoned administrator. He is very much a child advocate and he is known for being connected to his faculty and involving them in decision making,” Colter said. “He is someone who has a lot of enthusiasm, energy and great ideas and someone, we think, who will connect very strongly with our faculty.”

Despite the top level turnover at the two schools, Colter was happy where the school department started the year.

“We are in good shape and very fortunate,” he said.

As 2017 drew to a close, the school board made another key hire for the district. In a special meeting, Dec. 15, the school board unanimously approved hiring Maranacook Area Schools Superintendent Donna Wolfrom to a three-year contract.

According to a news release announcing the hire, “the board sees Dr. Wolfrom leading Cape Elizabeth Schools in a positive direction, as she has done in RSU 38. We are excited to work with Dr. Wolfrom and gratified to have persevered through three searches to find the right fit for our school and community.”

Wolfrom will begin in her new position July 1, 2018. Colter will continue to lead the district until then.

South Portland

As we begin to draw the curtain on 2017 and look back to consider how the year may be remembered in the history books, it becomes clear that few of the really big stories – the ones that destined to have a systemic, generational impact on Maine’s fourth largest city and the people who call it home – made a really big splash.

In that way, 2017 might almost be considered South Portland’s stealth year. And yet, those things that did happen, even when they happened quietly and with little fanfare, will leave a lasting impression.

Here is our look at the year’s top five stories, along with a few comments from city officials who were kind enough to share their thoughts.

Marijuana top issue, just like in other municipalities

As the Maine Legislature spent the entire year wrangling with how to enact the November 2016 public referendum that legalized marijuana, most municipalities across the state did one of two things – they either enacted a local ban on commercial use of the product, regardless of how local residents actually voted, or they enacted a string of moratoriums, delaying any action at all until the state had its licensing rules in place.

The South Portland City Council also enacted a moratorium, and also renewed it as the clock on its temporary ban wound down. But unlike most cities and towns, South Portland also tackled the problem head on.

From the beginning, the council made it clear it would welcome marijuana sales, if not with open arms, then at least in recognition that local voters weighed in not once, but twice, on legalization, having adopted a local measure by citizen petition in 2014.

After working on enabling rules in workshops and at the planning board level through much of the year, the city council adopted zoning in licensing regulations in early November. The vote was noted by Linda Cohen, who’d go on in to win election to her second term as mayor in four years, as she observed how few residents seemed to express an interest in either the nuts-and-bolts process of the ordinance work, or the final vote. Council chambers were packed late in the year when the council took up the issue of short term rentals, she observed, but had been a veritable ghost town during the marijuana work.

But that may be because local legalization still does not have a legal framework on which to hang its hat. Even as the South Portland City Council has adopting rules for where, under what conditions, and with what for licensing rules, marijuana may be cultivated, manufactured, and offered for retail sale, the legislature was busy sustaining Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the statewide measures that also must be enacted before the first dime baggie can be legally exchanged.

The problem, LePage noted in his veto message, is that marijuana remains illegal on the federal level. To date, the feds have taken a blind eye as state after state has voted to decriminalize marijuana. But, LePage observed, that could change under the Trump administration.

“Until I clearly understand how the federal government intends to treat states that seek to legalize marijuana, I cannot in good conscience support any scheme in state law to implement expansion of legal marijuana in Maine,” LePage wrote. “If we are adopting a law that will legalize and establish a new industry and impose a new regulatory infrastructure that requires significant private and public investment, we need assurances that a change in (federal) policy will not nullify those investments.”

That’s stance is why Councilor Eben Rose listed the marijuana issue as his No. 2 top story for the year, although, as he noted, the real issue was “the decision of the state Legislature and the governor to undermine initiatives and referenda.”

As Rose noted, not only has the state failed thus far to implement the will of the people in regards to marijuana legalization, it has punted on two other referendum questions passed on the November 2016 ballot – ranked-choice voting,andestablishinga3percent surtax on incomes more than $200,000 to help fund public education.

“Undermining popular referenda undermines an important democratic reform from the turn of the last century and may have the effect of dispiriting voters to get out the vote,” Rose said. “Who benefits from that? Not democracy. Indeed Western-style civic democracy is under unprecedented strain worldwide.”

In essence, Rose said, the most important news item affecting South Portland last year actually went down in Augusta. Meanwhile, Rose said the same is true of Washington, D.C., which, he intimated, may be why things seemed so low-key in South Portland during 2017, given the energy and attention focused instead on the Trump Administration.

Rose’s No. 1 local story of 2017?

“The ongoing s— storm that is the Trump era.”

“Charlottesville and the rise of fascism, the Women’s March and feminist resurgence, the disastrous swamp creature cabinet picks, the current tax bill, the gutting of the State Department and provocation of North Korea, the Russia investigation and attacks on news media, the list is endless,” Rose wrote.

City business continues under new management

While the leadership in state and national capitals was raising the hackles of Rose and a host of other South Portland residents inclined to similar political views, the top job changed hands in South Portland under far greater acclaim.

Following the surprise resignation of long-time city manager Jim Gailey in 2016 – Gailey, a lifelong South Portland resident would go on to become manager of Cumberland County – the council went about its business with interim manager Don Gerrish, as it searched for a replacement. That effort took a decided detour late in 2016 when the selected candidate backed out at the last moment. That sent the council back to the drawing board. Eventually, they found their man in New Gloucester resident Scott Morelli, then the city manager of Gardner, who took office in February.

Between the two searches, the council vetted nearly 60 applications. Maxine Beecher, who has the longest tenure on the city council, has declared Morelli to be a great fit for the city, naming his hiring as her No. 1 local story for 2017. But South Portland was only able to land Morelli, she noted, by being willing to bend a bit.

“We allowed for the manager to live out of South Portland,” she said, noting the first change in that residency requirement in city history.

City’s focuses on west end

As Morelli settled in and began addressing the city’s needs, he also found himself having to take on issues left dangling in the long eight-month transition since Gailey’s departure. One of those jobs was to finally direct city efforts at building at the Aspasia Marina on Front Street – a dilapidated building that has long been the topic of safety concerns raised by Ferry Village residents.

Morelli tackled the issue because it was Councilor Brad Fox who brought his attention, despite living on the opposite end of the city in District 5. And by making the one nomination, Fox was being modest, as he has been credited by his peers with leading the charge for what may end up being the most transformative event of 2017 – the rezoning of the West End.

For much of the year, city planners worked somewhat under the radar on a new West End master plan, a document the city council contracted the Greater Portland Council of Governments to prepare.

“It was really the first time the city had done a thorough look at the west end,” Beecher said. “It was long overdue and will change the west end to be more attractive to the general public to visit.”

After recommendations in the master plan were run by the planning board and the council began to take up the zoning changes needed to implement change, Councilor Claude Morgan, of District 1, publicly lauded Fox, who has long championed the city’s immigrant-rich west end as too long overlooked by the council, which has, by its own admission, tended to focus more on South Portland’s older and increasingly gentrified neighborhoods.

“You’ve done a lot of work for District 5, getting us focused correctly,” Morgan told Fox at a November meeting. “If that is your legacy, it is an honorable one. I commend you and I’m really proud of the work you did.”

Many of the zoning changes were made with an eye toward transforming the retail mall district into more of a mixed use area, enabling construction of taller housing complexes with units in a more affordable price range, and to help establish genuine village centers in the Redbank and Brick Hill housing projects.

By years end, that latter vision began to take shape, thanks to a few additional zoning tweaks, a city loan, and a new tax increment financing deal, in the form of a new mixed-use development at 586 Westbook St.

With city help – an $86,000 loan from the city’s revolving loan fund, soon to be repaid – Le Variety owner Quang Nguyen bought a vacant lot adjoining his store. Nguyen then entered into a deal with Avesta Housing for a $9.5 million project, approved by the planning board last week, that will result in a new home for his store, as well as the city’s social services resource hub, and 64 housing units geared almost exclusively to people earning 50 to 60 percent of the area median income

Now reportedly waiting in the wings for approvals in 2018 are housing projects in the Clark’s Pond area, as well as homes destined to replace the Sable Oaks gold course.

Public works building unveiled

In early November, South Portland cut the ribbon on a $15.7 million complex on Highland Avenue after nearly two years of work. The new building, paid in part with a $14 million construction bond approved by voters in 2013, combines the city’s public works, parks and recreation, and transportation department’s under one roof. The new digs also allowed public works to decamp from its historic home on O’Neil Street, deep in the heart of the city, in an area increasingly surrounded by residential development.

“Moving public services off O’Neil St. has been a dream of council for close to 23 years,” Beecher said. “Thanks to the then-City Manager Jim Gailey, who put his all into moving the public works, our vehicles have moved into a wonderful building which is complete with giant car washes, big enough for our big dump trucks and our city busses as well as our largest fire trucks. It is heated with natural gas and sits next to our large bank of solar panels, which provide electricity for this facility.

Just last week, an special committee convened to scope out possible new uses for the old six-acre site on O’Neil Street. Having worked for most of the year on that goal, including several public workshop sessions, the 13-member committee came back with a recommendation for development of energy efficient single-family homes designed to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood, at prices affordable to the median-income families earning about $62,000 per year.

The committee is slated to make its pitch to the city council on Jan. 8.

Also coming online this year is the city’s new solar array, located just behind the new public services complex, atop South Portland’s old capped landfill. Several years in the making, the switch was flipped by Mayor Patti Smith in October.

Built by Portland-based ReVision Energy, the site’s 2,944 photovoltaic panels cover 34 acres – said to be the largest municipal solar array in the state. It is expected to generate 1.2 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, enough to supply 12 percent of the electricity used by the city’s municipal and school buildings.

Tar sands lawsuit continues

And finally, quietly creeping away in the background has been the ongoing legal battle over South Portland’s 2015 Clear Skies Ordinance, designed to block diluted bitumen, or “tar sands,” from entering local ports – a court fight that has cost the city more than $1.2 million, so far.

Against that bill, the city has taken in $162,587 in private donations to a special defense fund, some as small as $20, from supporters of the tar sands ban.

On Dec. 12, U.S. District Court judge John Woodcock Jr. denied a city request to dismiss the suit, his second such ruling since August.

That decision resets the suit on its previous course.

“Where we’re at in the process is we’re essentially back on the clock, waiting for the judge to issue his decision on summary judgement as to whether all the facts in the case are agreed upon,” Morelli said. “He could issue a decision at that point, or, if there seem to be facts that are still in dispute, then it would shift to having an actual trial to figure out those discrepancies.”

The council met on the issue behind closed doors several times during the year, meaning the case has received little public fanfare, even as moves on the international stage make it seem less likely that Portland Pipe Line Corp, now operating in a limited capacity, will get a chance to flow tar sands though its terminal.

Still, the case, which has eaten up so many city dollars, and continues to divide public opinion, promises to end up before the Supreme Court before all is said and done.

“In our next executive session we will ponder next steps, including the option of appealing this most recent ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals,” Rose said.

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