Portland's planning process isn't working

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People continue to be dissatisfied by the planning process in Portland. Many of my neighbors are upset by the Planning Board’s recommendation that the City Council rezone 44-acre Camelot Farm from R-1 to R-3 to allow the construction of at least 90-100 homes on 30 of those acres that aren’t in a floodplain.

These neighbors are concerned that the proposed development will be much denser than the surrounding area. They worry about the runoff from all those homes into the Stroudwater River, about increased traffic on Westbrook Street, which already is jammed during rush hours, and about the loss of one of the last large open spaces within the city’s limits and the wildlife that goes with it.

They wonder what happened to the city policy against contract zoning, what homes priced between $350,000 and $450,000 have to do with the lack of affordable housing, and why the city didn’t rezone the 7-acre Elks Club property on the bus line on outer Congress Street to allow denser residential development, instead of rezoning it for commercial use.

These neighbors feel that the Planning Board and its staff ignored their concerns in favor of the developer’s interest in making a profit. As a result, some, including my wife, are working on a referendum to give neighborhoods more of a say about zoning changes.

My sense is that they are not alone.

In Maine, state law encourages municipalities to use comprehensive plans to regulate development. The stated goals of such plans are to promote consistency; protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens; encourage orderly growth and efficient use of public services and facilities; promote economic well-being; encourage affordable housing; protect natural resources, and promote recreation.

Creating a comprehensive plan starts with inventorying a municipality’s population, economy, resources, transportation modes, housing stock, development and public services. The next steps are to develop a policy that applies the state goals to that inventory and a strategy to implement that policy, by identifying areas in which growth according to standards and procedures should be encouraged. These are “growth areas,” limited to medium density development; “traditional areas,” and “rural areas,” where incompatible development should be discouraged. 

State law requires that local ordinances be consistent with the local comprehensive plan. It also specifically requires that before a municipality creates a contract zone that modifies the criteria of an existing zone to accommodate a developer, it must give notice to owners and abutters and conduct a public hearing. Even then, contract zones must be consistent with the comprehensive plan and the existing zone.

Portland’s municipal code identifies the purposes of zoning as reducing congestion; ensuring safety; providing adequate light and air; preventing overcrowding; facilitating adequate public facilities, services and utilities; including transportation; respecting the character of existing zones and their suitability for particular uses, and conserving and stabilizing property values.

The city’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan lists goals such as reinforcing the center, spreading growth fairly, promoting density and infill development, encouraging density near neighborhood centers, and creating and distributing open spaces in areas that are under-served.

The Planning Board assists the city with planning. Among other things, it reviews applications for zoning changes and makes recommendations to the City Council. It does so by holding workshops to provide feedback to applicants, and by holding hearings to provide an opportunity for public comment. The City Council adopts the Comprehensive Plan, passes zoning ordinances, and approves zoning changes and variances.

All this planning and process hasn’t produced a lot of satisfaction.

Part of the problem is that the laws, plans and ordinances aren’t much more than lists of vague and contradictory aspirations. They don’t clearly define and prioritize goals. As a result, they provide little guidance to decision-makers and they inspire little public faith.

The Planning Board doesn’t help itself by seeming to give more consideration to developers than residents. There’s room for improvement.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and vice chairman of the Republican City Committee.