Election 2015: The ‘view’ on Question 2 in Portland: Preservation or prohibition?

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PORTLAND — The views on ballot Question 2 are squarely in the eyes of the beholders.

Supporters call it a necessary response to protect views of Portland’s waterfront and ensure city officials balance the interests of residents and developers.

“I think it is good for the city because it is protecting the 400-foot view from being covered up,” Save the Soul of Portland spokeswoman Anne Rand said Tuesday.

Opponents of the Nov. 3 referendum said the question is too broad, lacks key definitions, and would hamper or halt economic growth.

“On the surface, the message from the supporters is very compelling, it is protect scenic views,” Portland’s Future spokesman David Farmer said Monday. “But that is not what this ordinance does, it goes way too far and would create problems throughout the city.”

Portland’s Future was formed in August to oppose the referendum.

If passed, Question 2 would be retroactive to May 26. As a citizen initiative, it could not be amended by the City Council for five years.

The referendum, which was written by members of Save the Soul of Portland, would first amend zoning on a portion of land at the former Portland Co. at 58 Fore St. by creating a new Scenic Viewpoint Protection Zone on the acreage off Fore Street between Waterville and Atlantic streets.

Within that zone, building heights for new construction would be based from 2 feet above the floodplain, as opposed to using the average grade height of the property, which was allowed by a zoning change city councilors approved in June.

“To us, it would take a significant portion of our site and make it undevelopable,” developer Jim Brady said Monday.

Brady, with partners Kevin Costello and Casey Prentice, bought the 10-acre property from Phineas Sprague Jr. in 2013. The land was originally the site of manufacturing for the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad, which linked Portland and Montreal.

The difference in base measurements affects how high new construction would rise above the grade of Fore Street as it ascends to the Eastern Promenade. A floodplain measurement would preserve views from Fore Street for most pedestrians.

“It is part of why people come here and why people like to live here. We believe it to be a public asset,” Rand said.

New construction is already capped at 65 feet and must fall within the 50-foot view corridors extending from the Atlantic, St. Lawrence and Waterville street intersections with Fore Street. Keeping buildings at grade level would mean new housing would be impractical, Brady said.

“Half of your building would be buried with no windows,” he said.

Question 2 also sets performance standards designed to protect what is called “the scenic resource,” including prohibiting landscaping, signs, fences or additional rooftop structures.

If passed, it would require the City Council to establish a 13-member task force, including a councilor, members of the planning and historic preservation boards, a member of the Portland Development Corp. and someone representing the Land Bank Task Force. The remaining task force members would be from the public, and must represent all five electoral districts in the city.

The task force will take inventory of “significant scenic areas and viewpoints” in the city and present its findings to the Planning Board, which could recommend zoning protections to the City Council using the Scenic Viewpoint Protection Zone template. The task force would have 18 months to complete its work.

Criteria for protection is based on a handbook scorecard prepared in 2008 for the former state Planning Office by Yarmouth-based architect Terrence Dewan.

“We are trying to give them a tool so these places are assessed; it is not mandated,” Rand said.

Twenty members of the public or “the owner of an affected property” could also seek to rezone a property for scenic protection.

“It becomes an incredibly powerful way to block projects,” Farmer said, noting that “affected property” is not defined in the referendum.

Rand said opponents have overstated the referendum’s potential effects because the protection zones are very clearly defined, it would cost $3,000 to seek the zoning change, and the final decision would be made by city councilors.

The third portion of Question 2 requires anyone seeking a zoning change with the city Planning & Urban Development office to provide information that includes “a site plan of the subject property showing existing and proposed improvements should the zone change be granted, including such features as buildings, parking, driveways, walkways, landscape and property boundaries.”

The information would not have to be as detailed as a final site plan submitted for Planning Board approval. Zoning change requests are reviewed by the Planning Board and require City Council approval.

Opponents have said the process would become too costly, and Brady has objected because the redevelopment of the Portland Co. land is a phased project that could take a decade to complete and will be subject to changes in the economy.

Rand said most people seeking a zoning change already meet the standards in Question 2, while Brady and his partners used existing regulations to remain vague about their plans.

“It restores some openness in the rezoning process and the public hearing process,” Rand said. “The problem is, the public had nothing to respond to (on Portland Co. zoning), so we had to go with a worst case scenario.”

Save the Soul of Portland also formed a Political Action Committee in support of the referendum. According to filings with the City Clerk’s office, from July 1 through Oct. 1, the PAC had raised more than $11,200 in cash and about $2,100 from in-kind contributions, while spending almost $7,000 on the campaign.

Portland’s Future had raised almost $50,000 as of Sept. 21, according to filings. The PAC had spent almost $30,000 by the same date. The PAC had also funded $9,000 of the $14,000 raised by Maine Media Collective, which was established by the publishers of magazines such as Maine and Old Port.

The Portland Society for Architecture and GrowSmart Maine also oppose the referendum. The Portland Green Independent Committee has endorsed Question 2.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The view of Portland harbor, seen Oct. 15 from Waterville and Fore streets, is central to the zoning provisions in city ballot Question 2.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Carle Henry

    Pretty nice article. Just a couple points to consider.

    When Rand talks about the 400 foot view, keep the following in mind as you vote November 3rd.

    1. There was no view in that specific spot until the wealthy home owners (who sponsor SOP) requested the previous owner to cut them down so they would have a view. Notice they did not request the entire area to have the trees cut so others could enjoy it.

    2. The proposed referendum prohibits trees from being planted in that particular area ever again so those 4 homes will not be affected.

    3. Views from Waterville or Saint Lawrence will basically stay ‘as is’ even with development. In fact, views from the 4 Fore Street homes will stay the same from their upper floors.

    4. With development, 3 separate areas will be opened up offering views to the water. The 3 areas equate to more than the 400 feet Rand is trying to protect for her friends on Fore Street.

    Vote No on Question 2

    • jbs01

      Agreed. A poorly conceived overeach with dubious benefits that also jeopardizes a once in a generation opportunity to redevelop a historic and derelict industrial site.