2016-05-13 / Front Page

South Portland looks to relax permitting rules

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It may have a growing reputation for being hard on businesses, even losing its state-bestowed “business-friendly” designation, but South Portland is taking steps to relax from regulations.

At a May 9 workshop session, the city council backed requests from the city clerk’s office, along with some ideas previously generated by the council, that would remove a host of permitting requirements, reducing red tape on everything from food trucks to lawn sales.

The changes, seven in all, should land before the city council for formal endorsement in coming weeks. Many will require changes to existing ordinances.

Of the proposals, the one to garner the most council debate was a plan to eliminate the $5 permit fee to conduct a garage or yard sale.

In place since 1976, the $5 permit allows a maximum of two garage sale permits per household, per year, once every six months.

City Manager Jim Gailey was in favor of maintaining the status quo.

“My 2 cents, if we get rid of the permitting process, we may have the forever garage sale happening,” he said. “I can think of five people who would always have a garage sale and it might become a business run right out of their garage or front lawn.”

“Some people will see that as a business opportunity and could be selling stuff every day, 24 hours a day, for all we know,” Councilor Brad Fox agreed.

However, Councilor Eben Rose said he doubted the permit itself does much to police ad hoc junk shops. What it really takes, he said, is enforcement, and that can come off as heavy handed.

“My understanding is that a couple of years ago we had a police officer who was very zealous about this. Is that really the kind of city we want?” he asked.

However, Councilor Linda Cohen noted that, at least during her tenure as city clerk, officers would rarely issue a summons for an unpermitted tag sale. Instead, they’d sell a permit on the spot, making an illegal sale instantly legal, and she’d often come in to piles of dollar bills on her desk from permits issued over the weekend.

These days, the city rakes in less than $1,500 per year in yard sale permits. According to City Clerk Emily Carrington, 235 permits were issued last year, amounting to $1,175 in revenue. The year before that, 260 permits were sold, for $1,300 in fees.

Some councilors suggested it might be time to hike the fee to $10 or higher, but Rose stuck to his guns. A permit should not be required, he said, because existing ordinances in the city already differentiate garage sales from used good dealers.

“We often hear of the nanny state and this just smacks of that. It’s not necessary,” he said. “If a person has a concern about their neighbor they can file a complaint, and there is a mechanism for that.”

How the council might proceed on garage sale permits was the one change that did not seem to be finalized for future council action, although most councilors seemed in favor of retaining some form of permit.

More likely to go away, however, is the requirement for council action on some street closings. The proposal was to eliminate the need entirely. However, Gailey said some events, such as a road race, might require no city action or oversight but for the rule that requires the council to vote on street closures. The Color Run, he noted, originally planned to have 10,000 entrants when it first staged an event in South Portland three years ago. That eventually got talked down to 5,000 for the first running.

“I support the existing process,” Gailey said. “No one street closure is the same. This allows for a public process and another set of eyes for vetting.”

However, almost all on the council agreed that street closures for neighborhood block parties should be able to go though without a mother-may-I from the city council.

Councilor Patti Smith proposed waiving the council vote for any event that will close four or fewer streets, or draw fewer than 1,000 people.

Mayor Tom Blake was the lone holdout.

“It’s not very time consuming on our part to vote on these, and I actually look forward to them. It lets me know what’s going on in our neighborhoods,” he said.

Among other changes, the council agreed that three years after instituting a policy on sidewalk seating at cafes and restaurants, its need to oversee the process has passed. Last year there were just two permit requests, both renewals, and both garnering no complaints.

The majority agreed that, going forward, they should only have to weigh in on new permits, or on renewals where complaints have been registered.

Garnering unanimous support was a plan to exempt food trucks from having to go though the site plan review process before the planning board, when the vendor is taking part in an event already licensed by the city, saving the proprietor both the time and a $35 permit fee.

“Anything we can do to encourage food trucks in the city is a good thing,” Cohen said.

Also up for elimination is a requirement that owners of coin-operated machines, such as juke boxes, file a notice in a local newspaper each time their permit comes up for renewal. Just seven such permits were issued last year, Carrington said. And, while the permit will remain in place, the council agreed the need to advertise the potential issuance of such a permit belongs to a bygone era, especially given no state law mandating such public notice.

“That’s a really, really old, antiquated rule,” Cohen said.

Finally, the council agreed to add “brewery” as an option on liquor licenses.

Local licensing does not exist for such establishments. The one current brewery licensed in South Portland is licensed as "Tavern,” for which it was obligated to pay a permit fee of $600.

The suggestion is to add to the current liquor license application classifications of "Brewery - Small" for sites capable of 50,000 gallons of product, or less, and "Brewery - Large" for anything above that.

“This license would include breweries and tasting rooms where alcohol is consumed on premise,” Carrington said.

Fees would mirror the state, which charges $50 for a small brewery and $1,000 for a large one.

Smith suggested adding permit categories for distilleries and fermentation tanks, as well as defining what counts as a “tasting room.”

With breweries and craft beers continuing to skyrocket as a growing concern in Maine, councilors agreed breweries will take at least as much discussion at future meetings as garage sales.

“We might want to take a bigger look at the whole picture because it’s evolving so fast,” Blake said. “We certainly know Portland is having some issues in this area.”

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