2018-08-03 / Front Page

Eye is on preserving a greener city

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — More than a year into the development of a new plan to preserve open space in South Portland, and with just five months to go until the deadline for delivery of a finished report, an ad hoc committee working on the project has staged the first of two public forums on the topic.

About 60 people attended the event, Tuesday, July 30, at the community center on Nelson Road. However, nearly half of that crowd consisted of members of the committee, city officials, paid project consultants and volunteers on hand to record the event for playback on SPC-TV. That, consultant Jessica Kimball said, was not a complete surprise, given the glorious mid-summer weather. Still, she noted, more than 700 people registered their opinions via an online survey.

The city council created the Ad Hoc Open Space Committee in August 2017. The group was 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.

According to committee Chairman Barbara Dee and group member Tom Blake, a former city mayor, there is a “vital need” to complete a review 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. And, 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.”

In order to do better the second time around, the council in December voted to hire FB Environmental Consultants of Portland, at a cost of $37,971, to oversee the creation of a new open space strategic plan. FB then subcontracted Terrance J. DeWan & Associates of Portland to help with the project.

The council also allowed an additional $7,500 to the committee for incidental costs, such as staging Tuesday’s public forum. The full $45,471 was funded from a Municipal Building and Land Acquisition Reserve Account that, at that time, held $197,943.

The committee began meeting in March, although there was a slight hiccup at first as the group struggled to interest west end residents to join the cause. According to Jessica Kimball of DeWan & Associates, that same apparent west end disinterest was reflected in the public survey results.

There were 714 respondents, she said, but 52 percent of survey takers claimed to hail from just three east end city neighborhoods – Ferry Village (10 percent), Willard (21 percent) and Meeting House Hill (21 percent). Western neighborhoods such as Redbank, Brick Hill and the Maine Mall area accounted for between 1 and 2 percent, each, of total respondents.

Perhaps reflecting where in the city they came from, survey takers tended to be older – 75 percent older than age 41, with 50 percent 55 or older – and entrenched, with 77 percent having lived in South Portland for five years or longer. Also, 645 respondents, or 90 percent, said they owned their own homes, while just 10 percent were renters.

The most-visited of nearly 40 named open spaces in South Portland included Bug Light Park (cited by 88 percent of respondents), Willard Beach (82 percent), Mill Creek Park (67 percent) and the Greenbelt Walkway (66 percent), with a sharp drop-off of 48 percent or less for everything else.

The makeup of the survey respondents was also clear when asked to choose from among high, moderate and low priorities, as well as “not a priority” the different reasons named for preserving open space, from crating nature trails and wildlife habitats, to connecting current parks and preserving both large and small tracts from development. Nearly all of 20 given goals ranked as “high” priority, with “high” still finishing a close second even where edged out by “moderate.”

According to Kimball, 208 respondents provided additional comments, with recurrent themes including the need for better trail linkages, concern over dangerous biking and walking conditions in some places, wishes for better overall park maintenance by the city, and demands for improvements in both availability of places for dogs and enforcement of canine restrictions.

Following a presentation of survey results, forum attendees broke into small work groups, using large city maps to brainstorm places in need of preservation and ways to achieve those goals.

“Our group discussed the fact that we cannot do this alone,” said Elizabeth Benz, of the 21-member open space committee. “We need to talk about partnering with developers who are building apartments and businesses throughout the city, especially in the west, as well as nonprofits, civic groups and schools.”

Other ideas

“One of the big ideas we talked about was connecting the Cash Corner and Thornton Heights neighborhoods with the Wainwright (Athletic Complex) fields,” said committee member Kate Gatti. “Right now, it’s kind of a long trek to go all the way around on Broadway. If those neighborhoods had a direct access point that could really revitalize those areas.

Other ideas pitched included floating a bond to buy tracts of lands before developers can scoop them up, and initiating a 1 percent local option sales tax to fund park maintenance, as well as increasing walkability and biking access between neighborhoods and parks, including construction of a bridge over the Pan Am railway, and possibly even pressing into service so-called paper streets – subdivision roads laid out but never actually built – as access points

According to FB founder Forrest Bell, all of the ideas generated by those at the forum will be taken into account and worked into a presentation to the next public forum, to be held Oct. 25. Attendees at that session will be asked to help prioritize the listed open spaces and preservation ideas, he said, preparatory to delivery of a final report to the city council in December.

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