South Portland board fails to endorse energy benchmarks

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Planning Board members deadlocked Tuesday on whether to support an energy benchmarking proposal for the Mill Creek area.

But members were all on board when they supported a zoning change to allow a second home for developmentally disabled adults on E Street in Knightville. 

The seven-member board voted 2-2 to recommend the energy proposal to the council, with members Isaak Misiuk, Kathleen Phillips and Kevin Carr absent. Board members Linda Boudreau and Chairman William Laidley voted not to recommend the proposal to the council; Adrian Dowling and Taylor Neff voted in favor. 

The proposal, which came from the Planning and Development Department and Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, is a tweaked version of the initial proposal, which was opposed by the majority of the board earlier this summer

The new version is less invasive for tenants, who would no longer be required to report their energy usage, but would be encouraged to do so. 

It received preliminary approval from the City Council in a first reading in mid-October, and will now return to the council without a specific Planning Board recommendation.

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said mandated reporting is justified because, “when a building becomes large enough, there’s enough of an environmental impact … that it becomes reasonable to ask for public recording of energy and water use data.”

Originally the proposal was presented in conjunction with new zoning amendments in the Mill Creek neighborhood, which the council approved separately last month.

Those amendments include three new districts for mixed residential and commercial development, with the intention of cultivating places that feel more like neighborhoods. The area is now mostly large-scale commercial buildings and parking lots. 

Energy benchmarking was separated from the zoning amendments when it proved to be contentious among some Planning Board members and residents. 

South Portland’s proposal would apply to owners of buildings in the Mill Creek area that are larger than 5,000 square feet, or residential buildings with 10 or more units. Using information from their own usage and tenants who complied, the owners would be required to record the energy and water used for the public record. 

As the building sector usually accounts for 40 percent of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions across the country, the goal, Rosenbach told board members last summer, is to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. 

The proposal would apply to all 29 municipal buildings, in addition to 30 buildings in the Mill Creek area that fall under the guidelines. 

If they adhere to the requirements, building owners could receive financial incentives and licensing fee waivers of up to $5,000.

The biggest issue board members and some city councilors have with the proposal is the invasion of privacy. 

That concern persisted with two of the four board members present Tuesday night, including Chairman William Laidley, who remains one of the more vocal opponents.

“I still think it’s intrusive. I don’t see why private individuals can’t do this on their own,” Laidley said. “I think the whole sustainability issue is much more tied to land use than building use,” he said. 

Boudreau said she has “a lot of difficulty imposing this on a building owner, and I would like to see voluntary compliance.”

Dowling and Neff disagreed. 

“I think efforts to address those privacy concerns were done well and are reflected in the new draft,” Neff said. 

Congregate housing

The board voted unanimously to recommend that the City Council adopt a zone change to allow a second congregate home for adults with disabilities to open on E Street. 

A major addition would be built at the rear of 14 E St. and include 10 more rooms. The project would be an expansion of the private congregate living space next door at 20 E St., which opened five years ago and remains the only privately funded home for intellectually disabled adults in the state.

The arrangement provides residents with a level of supervision and autonomy that allows them to lead comparatively independent lives, Mary Chris Semrow, one of the parents who initiated the project, said in June.

The residents are able to live with their peers, are employed, use public transportation and enjoy living in the wider community, but are also able to rely on the support services they need. 

The new dwelling will be zoned as a large single-family house, but for ownership purposes would be considered a condominium, said Peter Roth, who works for Specialized Housing, the Massachusetts-based organization that also built the adjacent congregant home.

The group will maintain the small, two-story house and add the multi-story addition. 

“In my opinion, anything that we can do for folks who have special needs is worth doing. And this is compatible with the neighborhood, it’s compatible with the Comprehensive Plan, and I would even say the need for it is desperate in some cases,” Board member Adrian Dowling said. “We cannot do enough for folks who have disabilities.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

The South Portland Planning Board on Tuesday night approved a proposal to expand a home at 14 E St. for private independent living services for learning-disabled adults. 

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.