SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors at Monday night’s workshop sparred over changes proposed to the city’s fire code that would more tightly regulate and limit the storage and distribution of liquefied petroleum gas.
Councilors discussed amendments to Chapter 8 of the Fire Prevention and Protection Code that, among other things, would allow no new propane facilities in the city after Nov. 9, 2016.
That could prohibit NGL Supply Terminal Co. from building a 24,000-gallon above-ground propane storage facility at Rigby Yard, between Rumery Street and Route 1. The company’s application is in limbo while the Planning Board reviews a moratorium.
Councilors eventually sent the fire code proposals back to City Hall staff for fine-tuning. The proposed amendments were spurred by concerns about the safety of a propane depot in a densely populated residential area.
Other changes would include updating the city’s ordinance to align with National Fire Protection Association standards. It would also mean instituting a “safe distance” of more than 1,200 feet between rail cars carrying propane and “critical infrastructure,” or above-ground buildings, which would include the fire station at Cash Corner.
The buffer is “meant to ensure that your emergency responders are a safe distance away from any worst-case scenarios, (such as) spills or explosions,” proponent Devin Deane, of Thirlmere Avenue, told the council.
While Chapter 8 would have an impact on NGL’s application, it is not designed specifically to block it, Mayor Tom Blake said at the Dec. 28 workshop.
“These are two separate issues, as much as they may seem married,” Blake said. “Tonight is Chapter 8; it’s a separate issue to talk about setbacks for critical infrastructure in our community.”
While it may be unfortunate that NGL might bear the brunt of the amendment, he said, the amendments should be pursued.
But other councilors and residents said the proposed language is an overt effort to single out NGL’s application.
“Everybody in this room knows that this legislation was drafted by the same people behind the moratorium that we were considering a couple weeks ago,” Ross Little, a member of the Economic Development Committee, said. “It purports to be one thing when it’s really trying to get something else.
“It’s deceptive, (and) I’m concerned about the process that has brought us here to this point,” Little said, referring to the amendments as “backdoor legislation.”
“If this is a moratorium in another guise, this is below you and you shouldn’t do it,” he added.
Jeff Selser, of Summit Street, told councilors, “I respect each and every one of you, but if you pass this ordinance, in my opinion, it’s going to be bordering on incompetence.”
“This is not an ordinance, this is a manifesto against the propane and petroleum industry, this is an advocacy piece, this is a campaign stump speech,” Selser said of the proposed fire code language. “It’s also filled with extraordinary inaccuracies.”
“This is not a zoning law … the proposed amendment simply ensures, in a universal way throughout the city, that large propane tank facilities be a safe distance away from the city’s critical infrastructure,” he said.
Critical infrastructure, as defined in the new language, is any business or building with people inside, but not residences – an oversight Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser pointed out at Monday’s workshop.
The omission “makes it pretty flawed to me, in a way,” Haeuser said.
That led several councilors to agree that the language needed tweaking. As a result, the council agreed to send the language to staff for tightening before a first reading.
But even then, it is likely the council will be as divided as it was over the moratorium.
“To me, this is a land use ordinance parading as a fire code,” Councilor Claude Morgan said. “This is the moratorium squished into another chapter.”
The effort, he said, is “so obviously aimed at one applicant. It feels very sleazy to me. … How many times are we going to bite the applicant and deny them of due process?”
Newly elected Councilor Eben Rose said NGL’s application has conflicted with the city’s code of ordinances from the beginning, because the code prohibits storing more than 10,000 cubic feet of gas.
“That’s the due process, that’s the beginning and the end of this story,” Rose said. “If anyone doesn’t feel like they’re getting due process, if they want to whine and cry because it hasn’t been public, it begins and ends there. This is against the law, that’s it. Go home, come back when you want a zoning change.”
Councilor Brad Fox said shifting the attention to due process was a ploy to distract from the real issue, which is safety.
“We all took a sworn oath to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents of South Portland, not the cash flow of a multi-billion dollar corporation,” Fox said. “We keep getting distracted from the fact that we’re talking about locating a dangerous propane facility next to people’s homes, and (instead) we talk about process.”
Acting Fire Chief Miles Haskel said Monday that he is “very confident that the way (the NGL depot) is being designed and the use of it is a very safe operation.”