Portland voters defeat minimum wage hike, scenic view protection

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PORTLAND — The answers to Tuesday’s city referendum questions were a resounding “no.”

Ballot questions to create a $15-per-hour minimum wage in the city and amend zoning on Portland Co. property at 58 Fore St. were defeated by wide margins.

Question 1, to raise wages by July 1, 2019, lost 10,992 to 7,922. Question 2, which would also have created a task force to look into protecting city scenic views and required more land use details from developers seeking zoning changes, lost 11,793 to 7,002.

The referendum questions were opposed by a pair of political action groups: Too Far Too Fast on wages, and Portland’s Future on the zoning.

Chris Hall, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director, helped lead opposition to both questions.

“There are very few nights when you prevail on three of three,” he said, noting the Chamber also supported Ethan Strimling’s successful candidacy for mayor. “We are very grateful to Portland voters.”

Hall estimated Too Far Too Fast raised about $130,000 to fight the wage referendum, which would have required businesses with 500 employees or more to meet the $15-per-hour threshold by July 1, 2017. Smaller businesses would have had a July 1, 2019 deadline.

Hall said about half the funding came from chamber members.

“We needed to step up for them, and we did,” he said.

Mako Bates, who wrote the ordinance, said he expected a better result, but knew the opposition had more resources.

“(The question) did worse than I expected and what our polling predicted,” he said. “Getting the clarity out was a question of volume, which we could not match.”

The minimum wage in the city will still increase from the state mandated $7.50 per hour to $10.10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016. That minimum wage was approved by the City Council in September. The wage, which does not include municipal workers, will increase to $10.68 per hour on Jan. 1, 2017, and future increases will be linked to increases in the urban measure of the Consumer Price Index.

Question 2 fared even worse, although Lisa Whited of Portland’s Future said it was a challenge to make voters aware this was more than about protecting harbor views on Fore Street.

“It was a very complicated issue,” she said. “People had an emotional reaction to views.”

A primary focus of Question 2 was to limit how high new construction at 58 Fore St. would rise above street level and possibly block views.

Question 2 was written and supported by members of Save the Soul of Portland. Spokeswoman Anne Rand said the vote Tuesday was “an overwhelming rejection.”

While owners of the former Portland Co. land can move forward with plans for a mixed-use complex on 10 acres between Fore Street and the harbor, Rand said she expects some Question 2 supporters will still be involved when the Planning Board takes up the site plans.

Rand said she would also like to see more diversity on the Planning Board, and still supports requiring developers to present more details when requesting zoning changes.

Jim Brady, who, with partners Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello bought the Fore Street land and buildings from businessman Phineas Sprague Jr. in 2013, thanked voters for supporting “positive, thoughtful, forward progress” as the property is redeveloped.

The land was once the home of manufacturing operations for the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad. Some existing structures date to the 1840s. City councilors will soon vote on designating a portion of the land as a historic preservation zone, which would give the Historic Preservation Board some oversight in site plan reviews.

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

Question 2, which sought to limit building heights at the Portland Co. complex on Fore Street, was rejected by city voters Tuesday.

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.