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 vestal@chesterandvestal.com.

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