Housing policy tests nerves at Portland City Council meeting

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PORTLAND — Six hours of discussion and public comments Monday showed the relationship between the mayor and city councilors continues to fray.

In the first of two special meetings, councilors voted 6-3 to send the Housing Committee Mayor Ethan Strimling’s proposals to expand the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance by adding allocated housing and reducing eligible income guidelines.

The second meeting primarily concerned a zoning change for properties in Stroudwater, primarily the 55 acres extending across 1700-1714 Westbrook St. The new zoning was approved by a 5-4 vote, with Strimling and Councilors David Brenerman, Justin Costa and Brian Batson opposed.

Strimling would like to double the number of required affordable units in developments with 10 or more units, from 10 percent to 20 percent, while reducing the income requirements to 100 percent of the area median income from 120 percent for units for sale, and from 100 percent to 80 percent of the AMI for rentals. 

Councilors Jill Duson, Belinda Ray and Batson opposed forwarding the inclusionary zoning amendments to the Housing Committee that Duson chairs. Their opposition was based on process, not policy.

“What would be the intent of asking the committee to take up now what it already planned to do?” Duson asked, noting the committee planned to review questions about affordable housing in October.

Strimling said his amendments, which he announced last week, should be seen in the same light as any councilor asking for a policy to be considered by a committee.

On Tuesday morning, Strimling took the quarrel to social media, expressing his disappointment that Duson “attempted to block a referral” to the Housing Committee.

Duson said her objection was related to how she and the committee allocate staff.

“The way this is coming to us tonight is duplicative and does not make sense in terms of our committee process,” she said Monday night.

Batson, Ray and Councilor Justin Costa agreed, with Costa objecting to Strimling again advocating policy via a public announcement before presenting his ideas to councilors and committee leaders.

“I definitely think this is a larger communication issue,” Batson said. “I do find it duplicative to a certain degree.”

Strimling also objected to rezoning the 45 acres at Camelot Farm on Westbrook Street and 10 adjacent acres to a combination of R-3 and open space zoning, because he views it as a missed opportunity to add more affordable housing.

Developer Michael Barton and Camelot Holdings have an agreement to buy the farm from the Rogers family and have already bought the adjacent land, which borders the Maine Turnpike. The new zoning could allow almost 100 single-family house lots of at least 6,500 square feet and more space for multi-family housing on the 1714 Westbrook St. land. 

Councilor Belinda Ray successfully moved to have multi-family housing prohibited from being built on the farm land. The zoning also includes 25 acres of open space for public use on land near the Stroudwater River.

Neighbors objected to the rezoningl, over concern about the scope of potential plans, increased traffic from a subdivision, and runoff that could impact the river.

“If you are trying to make a community out of Stroudwater, you are not there yet,” Stroudwater resident Genie O’Brien said..

The Planning Board unanimously recommended the zoning change, seeing it as the best land management use for the city, while preserving open space.

Strimling said the new housing, including the eight to 10 units covered by inclusionary zoning, would remain too expensive.

“I would have traded the land preservation if I had gotten more affordability,” he said.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said that view was not realistic, especially since the starting price for lots will exceed $100,000. He was also frustrated at how the question was framed by Strimling.

“I feel like you framed my vote so that makes it seem like I was against affordable housing,” Thibodeau said. “It is not about you, it is not about me, it is about the project at hand.” 

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

By a 5-4 vote, Portland city councilors on July 24 approved zoning on Westbrook Street in Stroudwater that would allow close to 100 house lots.

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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.