Candidates: South Portland must balance development, environmental interests

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City Council candidates squared off over development, open spaces and housing Tuesday in a forum hosted by the South Portland Land Trust at City Hall.

Four candidates are running for three seats, but only one race is contested on the Nov. 7 ballot: the contest between Kate Lewis and Christopher Breen for the council District 2 seat being vacated by Mayor Patti Smith, who is termed out.

Running unopposed are District 5 candidate Adrian Dowling and incumbent District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan. Morgan did not attend the forum. 

Open spaces, development pressures and squeezing new homes on small lots in neighborhoods dominated the discussion. The city recently made it easier for infill development in residential neighborhoods.

Lewis, director of development at Greater Portland Landmarks, is also president of the South Portland Land Trust. SPLT Vice President Heather Drake said Lewis did not participate in the planning of the forum.

All three candidates said there is a need for more housing in the city, along with progress toward use of alternative energy, and expanded waterfront opportunities. But they also noted a need to balance development with parks and other open spaces.

Breen, who admitted he doesn’t know enough about infill development rules to give an educated opinion, said he believes in “listening to the people” as the subject continues to be debated. 

He said his top priority is the environment, and he believes many plans the city has in place are working.

Lewis and Dowling were more focused on making changes they believe will move the city forward.

Lewis said that she sees a “lot of significant growth and development” issues in South Portland, and while she believes greater density will help with the housing shortage, the city also needs to “preserve neighborhood character.”

“We also need to protect reasons why this is such an incredible place to live,” Lewis said.

Breen said the city needs to build more affordable housing while at the same time protecting open spaces and trails.

“We need to increase the supply and that could lower rent,” said Breen, who unsuccessfully ran for Portland City Council in 2001 and Portland Board of Education in 2005.

Breen said “people want to move here,” but there needs to be a balance between housing density and open spaces.

“The environment, open spaces and trails will be a top priority where I will try to make logical decisions,” he said.

Lewis said increasing density could be the correct choice for some neighborhoods, but not others.

“Does it fit in with the neighborhood? There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this particular question,” she said, while also advocating for waterfront redevelopment. 

Dowling said South Portland is experiencing a housing shortage.

“Very modest homes are selling for $300,000, $350,000 even $400,000,” he said.

Having more lots available does give people a better chance, he said, but he also said development needs to be done carefully. 

“It changes the character of neighborhoods when squeezing homes into very small spaces,” Dowling said. “Density has downsides.”

Dowling is a member of the Planning Board and serves as chairman of the Arts and Historic Preservation Committee. He also represents the city on two Portland International Jetport committees.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

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