Portland rent, zoning referendums move closer to November ballot

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PORTLAND — WEX is coming, and two referendum questions are likely to be added to the Nov. 7 ballot.

In two meetings Monday afternoon and evening, the City Council unanimously approved the $3.3 million sale of a portion of city land on Thames Street to 0 Hancock Street LLC, which will lease 90 percent of a planned four-story, 100,000-square-foot building to WEX, now based in South Portland.

In the later meeting, councilors set a Sept. 6 date for public hearings on proposed ordinances to regulate rent increases and override zoning requests. The hearings will meet the 60-day deadline needed for the questions to make the Nov. 7 ballot, where they would join a $64 million bond referendum for repair and renovation of four city schools.

Before Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta reviewed options for councilors to put the referendums on the ballot, City Clerk Katherine Jones apologized for overlooking a 90-day window required between holding a public hearing on a citizen initiative and placing it on a ballot.

Her error could have kept the two initiatives off the November ballot and required the city to hold a special referendum election.

“In my dealings with both initiatives, I was focused on getting them on the ballot and ensuring I had enough time to order my ballots. I totally overlooked the 90-day ordinance requirement, and for this, I am truly sorry,” Jones said.

But while researching how to rectify things, West-Chuhta said her office discovered the 90-day requirement between a hearing and election was actually invalid because it was a revision of the City Code that required a public vote beyond the City Council approval in 2011.

The discovery essentially resets the clock on the code to 1991, when the last revisions about referendum reviews occurred.

West-Chuhta said councilors were free to set the hearing date and then act Sept. 6 on the Nov. 7 referendum date, offer any competing referendum questions, or fully enact both citizen initiatives so no referendum election would be needed.

The path to selling 1.1 acres of Thames Street land across from the Ocean Gateway Terminal was clearer, but not without some public objection to WEX, which primarily provides processing services and technical support for fleet sales of petroleum products.

The potential building design, which has not been submitted to the Planning Board, was also questioned for its lack of energy efficiency standards.

Joey Brunelle, a candidate for the at-large council seat now held by Councilor Jill Duson, said the city should be considering impact fees because the development could add to parking and traffic congestion in the area when as many as 450 WEX employees come to Portland.

The company is expected to occupy its new space in April 2019. Waterville Street resident Karen Snyder said there should be a commitment to set aside at least 60 parking spaces for Casco Bay islands residents, because the new development replaces parking.

Councilor David Brenerman, chairman of the Economic Development Committee that unanimously endorsed the sale, said city codes can ensure sustainable design for the new building, while increased tax revenues will help fund city programs.

“I think we should be celebrating that a major business wants to relocate on the eastern waterfront,” Brenerman said. 

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

Portland city councilors on Aug. 21 approved selling a portion of this lot on Thames Street for development of a 100,000-square-foot building that will be home to South Portland-based WEX.

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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.