Forecaster Forum: Question 2 will right a wrong in Portland zoning

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Contrary to the assertions of Orlando Delogu in his recent column (“Policy Wonk: Save the Soul of Portland initiative makes no sense”), the passage of Question 2 is an important part of a progressive economic development strategy. Distinctive public views of our beautiful natural setting are a shared amenity which set Portland apart.

Travel practically anywhere in this country and you’ll find chain stores, formula food establishments and cookie-cutter architecture that threaten to make every place look like any other. Portland deserves much better. Protecting our visual connection to our maritime heritage enhances our quality of life and gives Portland an important economic competitive advantage.

I agree with Delogu that the city has made some good efforts to preserve significant views. As a former 10-year member of the Planning Board, I am very familiar with them.

That is why the 2015 rezoning of the Portland Co. property, which went against all of that good work, was so jarring and could not be left unchallenged.

Portland’s view protection efforts date back to the 1983 comprehensive inventory of scenic viewpoints. It identified the view over the Portland Co. from Fore Street as a premier panoramic view worth saving.

In 1989, Portland adopted a ground-breaking plan for downtown heights. To maximize the number of downtown buildings with potential for harbor views, the city adopted a series of building heights, stepping down from 260 feet on the spine of Congress Street to 45 feet on Commercial Street.

In 2004, using the same principle of lower buildings closer to the water, a height plan was developed for the eastern waterfront. In response to overwhelming public concerns, the eventual plan set heights on the Portland Co. property at a maximum of 65 feet above the large flat part of the site, tucked in under the top of the 74 foot tall, steep slope.

This was done expressly to preserve the panoramic public view of the working harbor from upper Fore Street.

Despite that 2004 plan, the June 2015 rezoning of the Portland Co., if permitted to stand, allows the construction of three-story buildings along Fore Street, on top of the steep slope, blocking that panoramic view.

Delogu suggests Question 2 is unnecessary because we can count on the Planning Board to protect views and view corridors when this development returns for review, because it has a 20-year history of doing so. I strongly disagree. During five months of review, this particular Planning Board made no effort to understand or defer to the 2004 plan.

If Portland’s voters do not enforce protection of this public, panoramic view by voting yes on Question 2, it will not happen.

Equally important, Question 2 finally moves into city ordinance the zone change submission requirements that have existed on the application form for decades. The current application asks for a description of the proposed use of the property and a “site plan … showing proposed improvements, including such features as buildings, parking, driveways, walkways, landscape and property boundaries.”

With the exception of the owner of 58 Fore St., almost every other developer seeking a zone change has complied with this request. It has never been a major barrier. Question 2 simply closes a loophole to make compliance with the application submission form mandatory.

When an owner refuses to reveal its plans if a zone change is granted, the public is put at a disadvantage in participating in the review process. Similarly, the city is less able to properly protect the public’s interest.

Bottom line: protecting character-defining public views and leveling the playing field for citizens and developers are crucial for the city’s future and should be supported by the voters with a yes vote on Question 2.

Barbara Vestal is a Portland attorney, former Planning Board member, former associate director of the Marine Law Institute of the University of Maine School of Law, former member of the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan task force, and member of Save the Soul of Portland. She can be reached at

  • Carle Henry

    There is so much wrong with this editorial, I am adding a long post which is broken into 3 pieces to ‘fit’….

    This editorial (as well as
    the SOP) preys on citizens who are prejudice against development and who are
    either too busy working or too unmotivated to review the facts for
    themselves. In this case, without any hesitation, I can tell you that you
    are being manipulated by a handful of wealthy citizens who are worried about
    their views and nothing else.

    Since you don’t have time to research the facts, below are a few that the
    author conveniently left out:

    – the ‘zone change’ was provided years ago for the previous owner of 58
    Fore Street but just recently adopted by the city for the new owner

    – the ‘height’ argument is a red herring. The city set the
    guidelines years ago and any developer must comply with them. There will
    not be a wall of 3 story buildings all the way up Fore Street. It is not
    possible given what the city requires based upon years of work from 100s of
    citizens and city planners.

    – a final design cannot be produced by any developer until the city makes
    up its mind on which buildings receive the ‘historical’ designation and other

    – the public has and always will be in the review process as outlined by
    the city. The process has been in place and is in place for this
    project. Look at Thompson Point, they are already in their 3rd (at least)
    set of plans. 58 Fore Street will be no different.

    – as for the view of the water from Fore Street, it will still be there
    for the immediate neighbors from their lofty vantage points. As for us,
    the pedestrian, here is the real scoop: If this referendum is defeated,
    as you walk down Waterville or Saint Lawrence, you’ll be able to see straight
    down the water (and walk there too.) There will even be a 3rd entrance
    point with full views down to the inner harbor. That’s a win for the all
    citizens or for any visitor.

  • Carle Henry

    Part 2

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    As far as a sweeping vista,
    not much will change. Today, vegetation blocks most of the view if you
    are on the waterside of Fore Street. Like today, you’ll need to be higher up in
    a house or on higher ground on Waterville or Saint Lawrence to see the broader
    view. Most go to the Eastern Prom anyway so keep in mind we are
    talking about a view most have never noticed.

    On public record are the names and addresses of the SOP founding members.
    Most, with few exceptions, are the owners of thriving businesses (for now) in
    Portland who live right on Fore Street across from 58 Fore Street.

    Here’s another fun fact the SOP and the author of the editorial skips
    over….the small area thru the fence where there are no trees is only there
    because trees were cut down at the request of the neighbors across the
    street. Note: no other trees were cut down at the fence to benefit
    the public. The only trees taken down were directly in their view because
    they were the only views those few cared about (not much has changed!)

    Before I forget (and another fun fact), if Q2 passes and development is stopped
    at The Portland Company, the new owners of 85 Fore Street can’t replant the
    trees that were originally there. These people will go to great lengths
    to protect something that they have no right to by law.

  • Carle Henry

    Part 3

    If the previous two posts/info is not enough, this SOP team and their
    referendum are costing us $10,000 in tax money for this ballot alone.
    That’s $10k grand taken from education, fighting drugs, providing housing,
    helping the homeless. Further, if question 2 is not defeated, it will
    cost you and me more to support the new, unnecessary red tape to fund a panel
    appointed by a mayor (no public involved) to set new development guidelines and
    to inspect any building complaints from as few as a single citizen.

    Of course, undetermined millions of $s will not come into our city as a result
    of postponed or delayed development. If this passes, we will become a
    closed city like San Francisco who has put in place similar building
    restrictions where only the very wealthy can afford to live. Good-bye to
    the Portland you know and enjoy if you do not show up and Vote No on November

    • jamesa48

      That $10,000 in tax money came about because the board of elections felt obligated to print the entire question on the ballot versus a biased summary put forth by SOP.

  • jamesa48

    Thanks to this opinion we know know the name of the attorney and former Planning Board member responsible for promulgating a lengthy and obtuse piece of legal gobbledygook, aka Question 2. Despite all the proclamations made by the straw man letters to the Press Herald, the only thing transparent is the desire of a precious few to maintain their private vistas. Barbara Wood’s mention of the chain store bogyman is but one more citation of the ad hominem, touchie-feelie emotional tactics SOP uses to promote “Save a view for the Precious Few.”

    What remains is to decide whether the citizens of Portland care for lowering taxes, building middle class housing and encouraging good development or kowtowing to an elitist few.

  • Mainer

    I became interested in this issue a month or so ago, and entered the fray as an undecided voter.

    I’ve researched the claims that have been made by both sides, and over time, I’ve actually become quite dismayed by the Soul of Portland’s tactics, misrepresentations, and willingness to flat out lie to their neighbors and the good people of Portland. I’m fairly surprised that the author of the referendum would reveal herself at this point, after hiding behind the veil of others for a considerable time now. With that said, one might think that I’d praise this late transparency. This is not the case.

    Now that I’ve done some pretty extensive research, I find it absolutely appalling that there is a continued effort to try and manipulate neighbors with these blatant misrepresentations. When is this group — that embarrassingly calls themselves the “Soul of Portland” – going to learn?

    SOP’s claims have been countered and repudiated by former Planning Board members, Mayors, City Councilors, members of the Eastern Waterfront Master Planning Committee, the current Planning Board, the current City Council, the current Mayor, the vast majority of the candidates for City Council …. even the city’s legal council opposed SOPs “opinion.” But beyond that, SOP doesn’t have a single legitimate endorsement to speak of – not one!! These people, especially the author, are trying to rewrite history, and no matter how many people tell them they’re wrong – THEY REFUSE TO LISTEN. Quite frankly, this editorial is another perfect example of this. If anyone wants to do their own quick study on this, read the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan and try to find the language that “promised” the author a panoramic view from her perch atop the hill. It’s absolutely absurd.

    This editorial is just one more last ditch effort. The arrogance is simply astounding. Good people of Portland, what kind of person believes they should be able to unilaterally write 8 pages of laws for the city of Portland? What type of people blatantly misrepresent the facts over and over again? What type of people try to create fear amongst their neighbors in an attempt to push their own self interests and agenda?

    Again, I entered this fray as an undecided voter with no bias on this issue. I urge all of you to read the articles, read the SOP comments … and by all means, read the referendum. Then take a look at how many leaders and organizations have endorsed the NO vote on Q2, and who has endorsed the SOPs position. Here’s a hint, the only people left supporting the SOP are the author, and her self-interested neighbors in the SOP. I hope voters strike down the author, and the SOP group with authority on Nov 3rd. Quite frankly, people like this are dangerous to the city of Portland and a message needs to be sent.