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Comprehensive planning overhaul gains momentum in South Portland

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Comprehensive planning overhaul gains momentum in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of city officials and community members are being assembled to undertake the task of updating the city's Comprehensive Plan.

The process is expected to be unlike previous planning efforts.

This time around, the city will hire outside consultants and work with the Greater Portland Council of Governments to take a more regional approach to the plan, which establishes growth and development guidelines for the next 10 to 20 years.

Mayor Tom Blake said the city has also budgeted $30,000 for the planning effort, but more could be needed. 

"Next year, depending where we're at, we may need to add to that," he said. "The council is committed to funding it."

The makeup of the 15-member committee is still being finalized and the city is still collecting applications from people interested in serving. Once established, the group could meet as often as three times a month for two years or more to develop a road map for South Portland's future. 

The effort is significant since the Comp Plan is the keystone of the city's policy and planning decisions, especially with regard to land use. 

The current plan was adopted by the City Council in 1992, but it has been amended over the years to include master plans for Willard Beach, Ferry Village and Knightville-Mill Creek, as well as the Project PLAN report, an effort led by former Mayor Linda Boudreau.  

Although the state requires communities to update their comprehensive plans every 10 years, South Portland has failed to meet that target; its plan is 17 years old. Much has changed since then and the city has experienced a shift in priorities.

City Manager Jim Gailey said he sees the city putting more effort into developing communities, rather than economic growth.

"While it is very important to continue to expand and diversify the city's tax base, it is also very important to continue to make and improve the livability of the city of South Portland," Gailey said. "Both can happen, we just need to make sure that the projects being proposed fit within the community's existing fabric." 

No longer the nexus of rapid development, the city has begun focusing more on environmental issues associated with that development. In recent years, the city toughened environmental protections in its zoning ordinance, especially dealing with wetland and coastal development, and storm water, and has been involved with neighboring communities in the effort to clean up Long Creek, an urban-impaired stream in the west end.

The city also signed the U.S. Mayor's Climate Agreement, which obligates the city to reduce its carbon footprint. Blake said he would like to build off that agreement to address environmental concerns. "We have to build a plan that puts the environment in the forefront," he said. 

Additionally, Blake said the new plan needs to be a flexible and active document that addresses the city's changing demographics and emphasizes the growth of small businesses, rather than large corporations. 

Blake said he enthusiastically supports taking a more regional approach to comprehensive planning, reversing what he described as a period of "isolationism," during which the city withdrew from the Portland METRO transportation service and Greater Portland Council of Governments, the latter of which the city recently rejoined.

"We're too connected with other communities to not mingle our comprehensive plans," he said. 

The Sebago Lakes region is one of the first areas to undertake comprehensive regional planning, Blake said.The city will keep a close eye on that effort, he said, to see how it may affect elements of South Portland's plan.  

It's unclear how the committee will delegate tasks and gather community feedback. 

The current plan is the result of work that began in 1988. It was ultimately adopted by the City Council in 1992.

At that time, the 26-member committee met more than 50 times over a 2 1/2-year period, with subcommittees conducting an additional 30 meetings. The group held four public hearings, produced two shows for local-access TV and made presentations to neighborhood and services groups. Also, 2,000 surveys were randomly sent to South Portland households asking a variety of questions.

Blake said he will meet with Gailey and Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser over the next several weeks to finalize committee membership. The group will likely conduct its first meetings late this month or in early November.

Municipal representatives are expected to include appointees from the City Council, Conservation Commission, Economic Development Committee, Energy and Recycling Committee, School Department and two from the Planning Board. Community representatives are expected to include a member of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Southern Maine Community College, South Portland Land Trust and representatives from a large and a small business.

There will be three unaffiliated residents on the committee. The city clerk is collecting applications from people interested in serving.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net