PACs square off over Portland zoning referendum

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PORTLAND — An electoral fight pitting the “soul” of the city against its “future” was joined Aug. 19 with the creation of a new political action committee.

At the core of the disagreement is a referendum proposing revisions to the city code that would create a new waterfront protection zone governing portions of the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St., a new task force to evaluate city scenic views and vistas and possibly create more protection zones, and require developers seeking zoning changes to present more detailed land use plans to the city.

Portland’s Future co-Chairman Jess Knox, architect Paul Stevens and Lisa Whited, owner of Workplace Transformation Facilitation, spoke against the referendum question, which was placed on the ballot after a petition drive by the group called Save the Soul of Portland.

“This ordinance will have unintended consequences that will hurt every neighborhood in Portland,” Knox said at a press conference along the Bayside Trail.

Save the Soul leaders have acknowledged the referendum specifically targets the reuse of the 10 acres at the Portland Co. complex, a historic site once used as a foundry and manufacturing complex by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, which linked the city to Montreal.

Referendum proponents, including attorneys Barbara Vestal and Ned Clifford, and former state legislator Anne Rand, have said the revisions are needed to stop city officials from granting too much leeway to developers and to protect views of the harbor.

If passed, the ordinance revisions would cap the height of construction on the Portland Co. land by specifically requiring building heights to be measured from floodplain levels, instead of the average median grade of the land. The floodplain measurement would effectively prohibit new construction higher than the grade level of Fore Street as is ascends toward the Eastern Promenade.

In presenting a front against the referendum, Knox, Whited and Stevens said the measure allows a very small number of people to potentially halt any project for selfish reasons.

“It’s not hard to foresee this ordinance being used to fight other thoughtful projects, including affordable and workforce housing,” Whited said.

Stevens, the principal architect and marketing director at city-based SMRT, said the referendum could also possibly block plans to build housing at the former St. Joseph’s Convent and grounds at 605 Stevens Ave., because it would be retroactive to before the City Council approved a zoning change on that property.

“This is a really, really bad idea,” he said.

City councilors approved the zoning change to allow redevelopment of the Portland Co. complex in June. The property is owned by partners Jim Brady, Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello, who operate as CPB2.

Proponents and opponents of the referendum have each established PACs, and campaign spending has begun.

June and July spending reports filed at the city clerk’s office for Save the Soul of Portland show the PAC is carrying a positive balance of $2,100 and paid $1,766 to city resident Benjamin Schattenburg to gather signatures in the petition drive.

Portland’s Future filed spending records last week showing it has paid $16,000 to Oregon-based consultants Patinkin Research Strategies and owes $17,850.

Knox, now a business consultant, has experience with campaigns on a Colorado referendum question in 2008, with the 2008 presidential campaign of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, and the 2005 Maine Won’t Discriminate campaign, which defeated an effort to overturn the civil rights law passed in the Legislature.

Portland’s Future can also count on support from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, according to Executive Director Chris Hall, and Brady said he and his partners will lend financial support.

“It’s great there is a citizens’ group that sees this (referendum) as a detriment to the city,” Brady said.

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

Jess Knox announces formation of a political action committee to defeat a Nov. 3 referendum question on zoning. “Question 2 could halt responsible and sustainable growth in Portland,” he said Aug. 19.

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.