2018-04-06 / Front Page

Help wanted

New group seeks to save open spaces
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Sandra Dee and Tom Blake, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of South Portland’s new Open Space Planning Committee, stand by the “The Gully” located between Elm Street and the Greenbelt Trail. A small coastal wetland that provides habitat for migratory birds, the site is slowly degrading from gradual filling from nearby development and encroachment from invasive plant species. It is one of several properties eyed for preservation by the new committee. (Duke Harrington photo) Sandra Dee and Tom Blake, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of South Portland’s new Open Space Planning Committee, stand by the “The Gully” located between Elm Street and the Greenbelt Trail. A small coastal wetland that provides habitat for migratory birds, the site is slowly degrading from gradual filling from nearby development and encroachment from invasive plant species. It is one of several properties eyed for preservation by the new committee. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Tom Blake is on a mission to prevent the unthinkable from happening, because, in his view, it’s already happened.

But here’s the thing – the former threetime mayor of South Portland can’t do it alone. He needs help. And he’s looking to get that help from very specific residents of his hometown.

These days, Blake serves on the city’s Ad Hoc Open Space Planning Committee, a group created by the city council in August. That committee has been tasked with creating an inventory of undeveloped tracts of land in the city and recommending a strategy to permanently preserve those it deems most vital to retain as green spaces.


Barbara Dee, chairman of South Portland’s Ad Hoc Open Space Planning Committee, points out to Tom Blake a spot in the area once known as Cobb’s Field, located next to a condo building at 450 Preble St. Eyed in the city’s 2001 open space plan as a tract worth preserving as a green area running to Willard Beach, much of the former field has since become a subdivision of 10 homes, just visible though the trees. The loss of that green space, she saud, provides extra incentive to complete a new plan, and to append it to the city’s comprehensive plan. (Duke Harrington photo) Barbara Dee, chairman of South Portland’s Ad Hoc Open Space Planning Committee, points out to Tom Blake a spot in the area once known as Cobb’s Field, located next to a condo building at 450 Preble St. Eyed in the city’s 2001 open space plan as a tract worth preserving as a green area running to Willard Beach, much of the former field has since become a subdivision of 10 homes, just visible though the trees. The loss of that green space, she saud, provides extra incentive to complete a new plan, and to append it to the city’s comprehensive plan. (Duke Harrington photo) After issuing a request for proposals, the committee selected Terrance J. DeWan & Associates of Portland to oversee the creation of a new open space strategic plan, updating a 30-page document originally drafted in 2001.

In December, the city council agreed to hire DeWan, low bidder for the job, for $37,971. The council also allowed an additional $7,500 to the committee for incidental costs, such as staging public meetings. The full $45,471 was funded from a Municipal Building and Land Acquisition Reserve Account that, at that time, held $197,943.

Finally, on March 15, the new committee held its first meeting. However, although it had been authorized by the council to appoint its own members, and although 15 people sat around the table, one thing became immediately apparent.

“Do you know how many people there were from the western side of our city? Zero,” Blake said in a March 30 interview.

“We really do feel we need people from the west end to help us with this,” said Barbara Dee, a member of the South Portland Conservation Commission, who was chosen as chairman of the open space group. “There are open spaces over there that need to be preserved, and things that can be done to increase the access of residents over there to open space. So, we need them involved, to tell us what areas they are most interested in maintaining access to.”

According to Dee, the committee decided it will have a maximum of 21 members. With the 15 at the first meeting, the final six slots have all been reserved for residents of the west end, including the Brick Hill and Redbank neighborhoods, as well as Thornton Heights.

“Basically, anyone who lives west of the Amato’s (on Broadway), we are very desirous of getting them to join us,” Blake said.

“We understand that those who live in the western part of our city are typically apartment dwellers who are often less involved in local government,” Blake said.

According to demographic data, the typical renter has lived in South Portland for less than two years, while homeowners have called the city home for, on average, about seven.

“And, so, those areas of the city are constantly in flux,” Blake said.

However, he said that in every past survey of residents conducted by the city, the desire for more open space and recreational opportunities always rises to the top of the request list.

“That’s because a home is a home, whether you own it or you rent it, and your community is your community, whether you’ve been here for two years or 20, whether you’ve just moved in or spent your whole life here,” Blake said. “People tend to think of the west end as just apartments and stores, but there’s a lot more there and South Portland does not belong to Ferry Village alone. We hope that everyone on the west end will recognize that this is their home as well as ours.”

“Whether they are homeowners or renters, they are a part of our South Portland community and we would very much like to have them involved in what goes on,” Dee said. “Not only do we want them, we need them.”

Blake and Dee both say there is a “vital need” to complete a survey of remaining open spaces in South Portland, and to find ways to preserve those spots from future development, in part because this is not the first attempt to do so.

The city’s first open space plan was created in 2001. However, that project was initiated and spearheaded by the South Portland Land Trust. As a result, the 30-page document essentially got shelved at the planning and development office. The city council thanked the land trust for its work, but otherwise largely forgot about it.

“Here’s the key,” Blake said. “The council accepted that plan, but they never voted to adopt it.”

There were 23 properties targeted in the plan for preservation. Today, five of the top 10 have been developed. That, Blake said, is because while the city council never looked at the plan again, it drew keen interest from those with an eye for buying low and selling high.

“That plan backfired on us,” he said. “It just ended up becoming a Bible, or a guidebook, for developers. It was a huge mistake on our part.”

As an example, Blake and Dee point to an area then known as Cobb’s Field, ranked at No. 11 on the 2001 preservation list. The area is located between a seasonal creek and the building at 450 Preble St., put up as a three-unit apartment building in 1915 by then-city councilor and assistant city postmaster Daniel Cobb. Also the owner of a Preble Street floral shop and greenhouse, Cobb, who was grand marshall of South Portland’s 75th anniversary parade in 1973 – the same year he died at age 106 – is said to have grown tobacco in the field during the 1930s. He’s also been touted as the first person in the area to attempt growing iceberg lettuce.

The field ran from Preble Street to Willard Beach, ending at what is now the beach parking lot. The dream in 2001 was to somehow contract with the owners to create a walking path from Preble Street to Willard Beach along the creek. However, the original open space plan was “incredibly light” on implementation strategies for its recommendations, Blake said, noting that on the topic of Cobb’s Field it said only, “Purchase price could be expensive.”

However, life and land in Maine’s fourth-largest city does not stand still and today the Cobb home is a condominium and the field has been largely filled in by a series of 10 homes built along the new Sand Pebble Way cul-de-sac.

“So, that is one area that has been lost,” Blake said. “And, yes, some people say those homes bring in property tax revenue that open space would not, but the flip side of that is that every one of those houses adds to our infrastructure needs, helping to drive up our city budget year after year.”

“And that’s not to mention the quality of life and protection to the environment afforded by open spaces, that are not lost forever,” Dee added.

The new plan will not be just about helicoptering in to save certain parcels from development. Some spaces, such as an area between Elm Street and the Greenbelt Trail known colloquially to locals as “The Gully,” would never be suitable as house lots.

That area was a tidal basin cut off at the start of World War II when the federal government built a railway spur from Rigby Yard to the liberty shipyards then surrounding the area now known as Bug Light Park. Insomuch as environmental concerns were even an issue in that era, there was a war on, and the track was laid across the basin, with only a small drainpipe connecting the tiny stream that feeds it to the sea.

What was a small coastal wetland that provided habitat for migratory birds has since slowly degraded from gradual filling and encroachment from invasive plant species, while the poor drainage turns the area into a putrid pool that can be smelled from blocks away during summer.

Dee said she hopes the site will be revisited by the new open space plan, this time with recommendations for improvement, such as possibly taking out the rail bed and turning that section of the Greenbelt Trail into a bridge that will allow the tidal basin to once again fill and drain naturally.

But, of course, to do that, the city needs a plan that will amount to more than a muti-page doorstop.

To rectify that, then-mayor Patti Smith raised the issue last summer as one of the final acts of her nine-year tenure on the city council. It was Smith who proposed a do-over of the 2001 plan, but this time preparing it with outside help, given the limited resources of the planning department. For this go around the finished product is expected to not only enjoy formal adoption by the council, it will be attached to the city’s comprehensive plan.

“That will give it some teeth,” Dee said.

For now, the new committee just needs a few west end residents to sit town at the table, to begin chewing on the possibilities.

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

Return to top