PORTLAND — Precedent defeated principle, at least in the eyes of Mayor Michael Brennan, when city councilors on Monday approved easements needed to start construction of a new state office building near the Portland International Jetport.
“Has there ever been an easement that will have negative effect, and harm thousands of residents for decades?” Brennan asked as councilors discussed six utility and access easements that would be transferred from Brooklawn Memorial Park to Jetport State Building LLC.
Brennan’s efforts to postpone votes drew no City Council support, and each easement vote passed 8-1, with the mayor the only dissenter.
Approved by councilors in 1997 as part of efforts to develop Jetport Drive, the city was legally bound to grant the easements to anyone assigned or sold the land by Brooklawn – a fact councilors held to despite expressing unhappiness with state plans to move offices of the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, and Workers Compensation Board from the Bayside neighborhood to South Portland.
“My responsibility is to have the city behave within the bounds of the law,” Councilor Jill Duson said while urging city officials to find other ways to fight the state decision to move the offices.
The site plan for the 75,000-square-foot, two-story office building was approved by the South Portland Planning Board Feb. 25. The easements are needed for utilities and to allow access for construction vehicles.
Brennan has been an outspoken opponent of the decision to move to South Portland. He and other opponents believe the move will harm agency clients who lack transportation, since only one bus line would serve the new building. There are no South Portland bus lines serving the building, either.
But developer Ken Cianchette said city failure to transfer the easements would be fought in court. Facing a March 15 deadline to secure the easements, Cianchette also said a postponement would be moot because the state was willing to grant an extension to April 15 without voiding the project.
Brennan also asked Cianchette to “step up and do the right thing,” by walking away from the project so the office site could be discussed anew with Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Public sentiment at Monday’s meeting also favored a vote against the easements, and included detailed descriptions of how the new location would cost clients time, money and convenience.
“(I want to) put a human perspective on a technical legal issue,” Congress Street resident Jim Devine said as he talked about how he and others in need of support can walk to the DHHS offices now on Marginal Way.
State Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, added his opinion that the state decision was a continuation of bad policy decisions by the LePage administration.
“It is just plain wrong, (it) brings it far, far away from the vast majority of people who use it,” he said.
The decision to build in South Portland has also been challenged in Cumberland County Superior Court by Tom Toye, who leases space to the Department of Labor and Workers Compensation Board in two Lancaster Street buildings.
Ultimately, however, councilors felt bound by law to make a decision they did not like.
“We have no choice but to pass each of the easements and move forward,” Councilor Nick Mavodones said.