Portland council delays vote on Stevens Avenue zoning

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PORTLAND — City Councilor David Marshall may hold the key July 6 to the future of the property containing Catherine McAuley High School and the former St. Joseph’s Convent.

Marshall’s absence Monday prompted councilors to postpone a vote on whether to place the property into an R5A zone that would increase housing density and allow Sea Coast Management to move ahead with plans to develop housing for people 55 and older.

Sea Coast has agreed to purchase the property for an undisclosed price from Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Community.

While councilors approved the text changes for the zone, because they also pertain to a development at 802 Ocean Ave., they postponed the map-change vote because it would have resulted in a 4-4 tie.

There were almost two hours of public comment Monday; more is not expected on July 6. (There will be public hearings that night on a proposed city minimum wage and the new Housing Safety Office that night, after the orders had first readings Monday.)

The zoning change was seen by members of the public and councilors either as a way to meet critical housing needs, or as too large for the 17.5 acres and a threat to adjacent Baxter Woods.

“My problem is the project is ginormous, that it is too big,” Councilor Jill Duson said.

Neighborhood residents John Thibodeau and Bobbi Cope presented more than 500 signatures from opponents.

“We all support senior housing, we all want to see the (convent) renovated, but we feel like this is mortgaging our neighborhood,” Thibodeau said.

Madeline Street resident Jesse Thompson supported the zoning and plans.

“I can’t think of a better place to put new neighbors and homes in our neighborhood,” he said.

Wage hike

An ordinance to create a citywide minimum wage starting at $8.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016, moved forward Monday. The ordinance would boost the minimum wage 50 cents per hour on Jan. 1, 2018, and Jan. 1, 2020, and is a revision of one crafted by Mayor Michael Brennan and a committee he convened in March 2014.

The current state minimum wage is $7.50 per hour in the state, and Brennan had sought an increase starting at $9.50 per hour and reaching $10.68 per hour by Jan. 1, 2018.

Employees earning at least $30 per month in tips can still be paid a “tipped wage,” as long as the employer meets the mandated minimum wage when tips fall short.

A citizen initiative petition to create a $15 per hour “living wage” will be submitted to City Clerk Katherine Jones on Friday and could appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Inspections coming?

A Housing Safety Office staffed by five people and overseen by the city manager also faces a July 6 hearing and vote.

The office was suggested by a task force created after a Nov. 1, 2014 fire killed six people at a rental home at 20 Noyes St.

Funded through a $35 per unit fee in the estimated 17,000 city rental units in 3,500 buildings, the staff would conduct life safety and code inspections, prioritize inspections based on risk assessments, and maintain a data base of city landlords and housing records.

Some details are unresolved or could change, and new City Manager Jon Jennings could eventually shift oversight of the office to another department. The full landlord fee schedule, including possible discounts, must be in place by Oct. 1 in order for fee collections to begin  Jan. 1, 2016.

Councilor Ed Suslovic said the discounts could include landlords who ban smoking, have fully sprinklered buildings, or continue to meet all safety, electrical and other building codes.

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

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.