Portland Question 2: Planning protection or prevention?

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PORTLAND — Question 2 on the city’s Nov. 7 ballot is seen as either providing a voice for people left out of the planning process, or a way to ensure no progress will ever be made in moving the city forward.

“A yes vote costs you nothing, a no vote could cost you your neighborhood,” Question 2 supporter Angela Wheaton said Oct. 18.

State Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, is a founder of OnePortland, the political action committee opposing the citizen’s initiative referendum.

“What we have on the ballot is something that is not a remedy,” she said Oct. 13. “That is the only question we get to address right now.” 

Written by Westbrook Street attorney Mary Davis, the so-called “Give Neighborhoods A Voice” referendum is a policy detailed in two pages. 

The referendum to amend Chapter 14 of the city code would allow 25 percent of registered voters living within 500 feet of a proposed zoning change or zoning map amendment to block change by filing written objections with the city.

The objections must be filed before the City Council votes on the zoning changes, but could be filed as soon as a zoning change is requested and before it reaches the Planning Board for review. Once filed, the city clerk’s office would have five business days to notify the applicant the objections are on record.

The applicant would then have 45 days to override the objections by gathering support for the zoning request from at least 51 percent of registered voters within 1,000 feet of the area in question.

The proposed amendments are retroactive to May 15. If passed, they cannot be altered by the City Council for five years. The retroactive date would block rezoning of the former Camelot Farm in Stroudwater for housing, and allow neighbors near West Commercial Street land rezoned by city councilors Sept. 6 for a cold-storge building to block that decision.

While it applies citywide, the referendum took root from objections to rezoning the Stroudwater acreage. The house and 45 acres of land at 1700 Westbrook St. were home to the family of Peter and Mary Rogers for more than 50 years, and went on the market two years ago, following the January 2015 death of Mary Rogers.

Last year, developers led by Michael Rogers agreed to purchase the land, and sought zoning changes to reduce the minimum house lot size from 15,000 square feet to 6,500 square feet.

Neighbors objected to the scope and details of what was planned on the site and an adjacent 10 acres bordering the Maine Turnpike. In all, the 55 acres could become a subdivision with 98 single-family homes and as many as 25 connected townhomes on the 1714 Westbrook St. site. Developers will also set aside 24 acres of land as open space with public access.

There are already enough objections on file to block the zoning change, which was approved by councilors July 24 by a 5-4 vote.

Davis, whose home abuts Camelot Farm, is also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking to overturn zoning changes at 1714 Westbrook St.

“I am rezoned, too,” she said. “I don’t want to be rezoned.”

Joining Sanborn at OnePortland is Jess Knox, who helped lead the successful opposition to a 2015 zoning referendum that would have limited the size and scope of development at the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. as an attempt to preserve scenic vistas in the city.

OnePortland is also getting consulting help from Bernstein Shur attorney David Farmer, who said Oct. 13 the premise of the referendum is flawed.

“Just become someone does not like the outcome of the process does not mean they weren’t heard,” Farmer said. 

Farmer and Sanborn said the city planning process may need some fixing, but it won’t occur as a result of the referendum.

“This will not increase participation in the process, it will greatly diminish it,” Sanborn said. “It puts an incredible amount of power within the hands of a very few people.”

Davis said she arrived at the 500-foot and registered-voter requirements because both are easy to track by city staff, and petitions submitted to the city require signatures from registered voters.

The 1,000-foot radius to gather signatures to overturn objections was chosen because it would not make the process too difficult for developers, she said.

Davis said she expects objections to zoning changes would actually be heard after they are recommended to the City Council by the Planning Board.

“The way it really works is, the Planning Board process goes through as it does now, with whatever citizen process there is now,” Davis said.

Sanborn noted the zoning changes on West Commercial Street have an estimated economic impact of 950 jobs and $171 million in the economy of the city’s working waterfront.

“If you live 1,200 feet away, neighbors living closer can block the project that could be good for the state and city of Portland,” she said.

At an Oct. 19 OnePortland press conference, Avesta Housing President and CEO Dana Totman said passing Question 2 could also prevent the development of affordable housing. He said a zoning change needed on Bishop Street to construct Huston Commons could have been blocked by only eight signatures.

Wheaton said that was an anomaly in how passage would affect the city.

“We designed the referendum and ran some samples, and did not find areas where it was particularly onerous,” she said.

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

Westbrook Street resident Mary Davis wrote the text of Portland Question 2 because she believed the rezoning process at Camelot Farm excluded her neighborhood’s input and objections.

State Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, said she felt personally compelled to fight Question 2 because of its harm to the democratic process.

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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.