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South Portland nearly balks at Jetport zone change

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South Portland nearly balks at Jetport zone change

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Wednesday night almost killed a zone change needed by the Portland International Jetport to make federally mandated safety and environmental upgrades.

Opposition to the proposal was based on airport noise associated with an 1,100-foot expansion of an emergency runway. Other concerns centered on destruction of wetlands and the proposal's affect on a trail the West End Trails committee hoped to build on Jetport property, connecting the Long Creek Trail to Portland's Stroudwater neighborhood.

Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said the crosswind runway is only used when winds are too strong to use the main runway. However, the emergency runway is currently too short.

"It's a huge safety concern for the (Federal Aviation Administration)," Bradbury said. "Runway safety is one of the highest priorities on the FAA radar." 

Although much of the Jetport's property is properly zoned, there was a small portion that was still zoned as rural farmland. Jetport officials needed the zone change to receive $5 million in federal stimulus money to build a de-icing facility, which is being mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Prior to the council's 5-2 vote – the slimmest margin allowed for a zone change – councilors stripped a future runway expansion from a list of allowable uses, while allowing the de-icing facility to move forward this summer. The intent was to give the council more time to have its concerns addressed.

"I guess I'm not ready to agree to the runway expansion at this time," Council Linda Boudreau said. 

Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Jim Hughes, who voted against the proposal, said they were concerned about the environmental impacts of the expansion, which involves filling wetlands and relocating a perimeter road. Blake said he wasn't convinced a hiking trail would pose a safety risk to the airport, as contended by Jetport and FAA officials. 

Hughes noted the irony of the council's approval, since the city received a national EPA award for its efforts to clean up Long Creek, the process for which is expected to be used as a national model. "I think we're taking this step too quickly," he said.

In other business, the council unanimously approved changes to its floodplain and storm-water management and shoreland zoning ordinances.

Although many of the changes are administrative and mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection, the new laws require subdivisions to develop storm-water system maintenance plans and, for larger developments, submit an annual report from a qualified independent inspector to the city. 

The new laws also allow the Planning Board to reduce parking and street width requirements to reduce the amount of impervious surface, which collects pollutants that can contaminate streams during rainstorms.

Meanwhile, the council voted 6-1 to send a $3 million bond to voters in June for replacement of the Long Creek pump station.

Finance Director Greg L'Hereaux said the city would only borrow the money if the $5 million project became eligible for federal stimulus money being funneled through the state revolving loan fund. He said the bond would allow the city to receive a no-interest loan, up to 28 percent of which, or $800,000, the city would not have to repay. 

The project is currently included in the city's capital improvement budget and would otherwise be funded through a combination of funds from the sewer user account and a tax increment financing district, he said. 

Soule opposed the bond, because he said there were greater capital needs in the city, like a new or improved facilities for public works, the high school and Fire Department, among other needs.

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