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South Portland tar sands moratorium heads to Planning Board

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South Portland tar sands moratorium heads to Planning Board

SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposed temporary ban on bringing diluted bitumen "tar sands" oil into the city is headed to a Dec. 3 Planning Board public hearing.

City councilors approved the moratorium, which would amend Chapter 27 of the city code, Monday by a 6-1 vote. It specifically bans "development proposals involving the loading of oil sands/tar sands products onto marine tank vessels docking in South Portland" for 180 days.

A simple majority was needed to pass the first reading and send the moratorium to the Planning Board. Five votes will be needed to enact the moratorium after a second reading, now scheduled for Dec. 16.

If enacted, the moratorium would be retroactive to Nov. 6, when it was first placed on a council workshop agenda.

The second vote will occur after a change in the City Council composition. At-large Councilor Al Livingston, who did not seek re-election, will be replaced Dec. 2 by Maxine Beecher.

While supporting the first reading, Livingston sharply criticized Mayor Tom Blake for his handling of the tar sands question that has been discussed since a March workshop.

"It is quite apparent Mayor Blake and other citizens orchestrated the procedures that led to this dilemma," Livingston said. Blake strongly advocated passage of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that supporters claimed was the best way to prevent tar sands oil from being piped to the city from Canada by Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Councilor Michael Pock opposed the moratorium, voting after former City Councilor and Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis asked him to recuse himself because of a possible conflict of interest.

Pock refused to step aside, saying any business ties from his handyman work and reflected by a sign he posted in opposition to the failed WPO did not affect his ability to make an impartial decision on the proposed moratorium.

Councilors unanimously agreed Pock did not have to step aside. And while Pock said he was opposed to importing tar sands, he said he opposes the moratorium because it is "unbalanced."

"We have got to work as a body of people to get through this,” Pock said.

During about 90 minutes of public comment, supporters of the failed WPO said the moratorium will provide time for a committee appointed by the City Council to craft a permanent ordinance banning tar sands.

"We depend on you to pass the moratorium, and convene a group of land-use experts with one job to do, to insert the necessary language into the zoning code to ban tar sands from South Portland forever,” Preble Street resident Karen Sanford said.

Blake said the committee composition will be discussed in an upcoming workshop. City Manager Jim Gailey on Wednesday said a workshop date has not been set.

In the final segment of general public comment, after the moratorium vote, Portland Pipe Line Corp. President and Chief Executive Larry Wilson said while disappointed the moratorium was moving forward, he sees a different opportunity.

“What is it about oil sands that makes it so evil to people?" Wilson asked. "Let's explore that together, but do it in an unbiased manner with no preconceived ideas.”

Opposition to the moratorium was also received from other petroleum businesses. In a Nov. 13 letter to Gailey, Matthew T. Durand of Gulf Oil in Framingham, Mass., called the moratorium counter-productive to bringing the city together after the divisive WPO debate.

"Under the thin veil or purported health and safety concerns, the current draft appears to be yet another one-sided attempt to undermine an entire industry," Durand wrote.

Sprague Oil Vice President Burt Russell also weighed in with a Nov. 13 letter to Gailey.

"The moratorium is exactly what the WPO proponents asked for in the ordinance and more," Russell wrote.

Maine law allows municipalities to enact moratoriums in the interest of public safety and welfare. In 2011, City Councilors enacted a moratorium on construction in Willard Square in order to consider zoning issues and plans for a market near the corner of Preble and Pillsbury streets.

In 2010, a 180-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries was approved to allow time to draft local zoning laws for the dispensaries.

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