South Portland council fails to enact propane moratorium

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council failed to muster enough votes Wednesday night to enact a six-month moratorium on commercial liquefied petroleum gas storage and distribution facilities.

Councilors voted 4-3 in favor of the moratorium, but needed a super majority of five affirmative votes for passage. Councilors Claude Morgan, Linda Cohen and Maxine Beecher were opposed; Councilors Eben Rose, Brad Fox, Patti Smith and Mayor Tom Blake voted supported the measure.

The proposed moratorium was drafted in response to – but not limited to – NGL Supply Terminal Co’s application to build a 24,000-gallon above-ground storage tank with 16 rail cars at the northern end of Rigby Yard, off Route 1, between the Cash Corner and Thornton Heights residential neighborhoods.

The council has also proposed changes to Chapter 8 of the city’s fire code that would establish tighter restrictions and limitations on LPG storage and distribution. Staff are refining a draft of the amendments, which will likely come before the council for a first reading Feb. 1.

The upshot, coupled with Code Enforement Officer Pat Doucette’s recent determination that the application doesn’t comply with zone, is that NGL has to file an appeal through the Board of Appeals to continue its application process.

A first reading of the moratorium was approved 4-3 by councilors in late December and sent to the Planning Board for review Jan. 12. The Planning Board voted 6-1 against the moratorium, with some board members specifically referencing how the measure targets NGL’s application.

Blake criticized the Planning Board’s decision Wednesday night, insisting that the moratorium is not about NGL’s application, but about the city’s relationship with all storage and distribution facilities.

“I am going to disregard, personally, their recommendation because I feel it was tainted and misleading,” he said.

The moratorium would have halted all new applications and allowed councilors and city staff time to scrutinize Chapter 27 of the Code of Ordinances to determine if the language requires changes.

“The problem,” Devin Deane, of Thirlmere Avenue said Wednesday night, is that “our laws encourage a process of transloading,” which is the “least safe way” of moving liquefied petroleum gas from vessel to vessel in Rigby Yard, he said.

“If you want propane storage, fine,” Deane said, “but do it in the right way, do it in the right place.”

“You can find somewhere other than within 500 feet of dozens of homes,” he said.

All it would take is “one tank, one leak, one spark … we’re setting up for a mega-ton explosion,” Fox said, after reading aloud a 2009 news story about the derailment and explosion of rail cars carrying LPG in Italy. The accident killed more than a dozen people who were home at the time, according to the article.

Cohen said she understands “there are those of you that live in the area or live in the city near other structures that scare you. I do get that. I don’t think that anyone can minimize anyone’s fear when it’s genuine.

“We have a lot of things going on in South Portland that are potentially scary,” but instituting a moratorium won’t necessarily get both sides to agree, she said.

Her position all along, Cohen said, has not been to support or not support a project, but to “support the process.”

If the council prematurely jumps into the middle of a project “because someone doesn’t like something that’s being proposed, where does that stop?” she said.

Greg Lewis, of Mussey Street, told councilors he finds it “a little hilarious that we’re talking about being unfair to these big petroleum companies.”

“It will be a day of reckoning if this does not stop,” he said. “Please don’t fall for the tactics of these companies who will lie, cheat, steal … we should use every method at our disposal to keep these people out of here.”

Jeff Selser, of Summit Street, said the purpose of a moratorium is to take a pause if current laws do not adequately address a proposal before the city, “not so you can write laws that favor your position … not so you can have breathing room to dictate wide philosophical views.”

“Stop abusing the process for your own personal agendas,” Selser told councilors. “It is blatantly obvious, and frankly, a large portion of the public is sick of it.”

In a statement following the vote to reject a moratorium, Kevin Fitzgerald, regional operations manager for NGL’s parent company, NGL Partners, said “NGL has patiently cooperated with the city of South Portland despite a project review process that now extends beyond one year.”

“While we are pleased that pragmatic, fact-based voices prevailed on the City Council this evening, we call upon Mayor Blake, as well as Councilors Fox, Rose and Smith, to abandon their political interventions and ongoing efforts to change the rules mid-game,” he said.

NGL currently operates at a four-acre parcel on west Commercial Street in Portland. It has to move to make room for an expansion of the International Marine Terminal.

The company plans to lease 10 acres of land from Pan Am Railways in Rigby Yard to continue the wholesale distribution of propane in northern New England.

NGL’s application was initially vetted and found compliant with city zoning code by Doucette a year ago, and it was approved in December by the Planning and Development Department.

But Doucette reversed her position on Jan. 8 and said the application does not comply with zoning codes.

NGL has said it plans to appeal Doucette’s decision by filing an administrative appeal with the Board of Appeals and “file additional information with the city to address these latest questions,” according to Fitzgerald.

NGL criticized Doucette’s reversal and the council’s intention to alter existing fire code language as efforts to unfairly squelch the application without due process. 

“For nearly seven months we’ve been systematically denied the opportunity to present our proposal and answer any questions,” Fitzgerald said in a press release following Doucette’s change of heart.

Blake, speaking just before the vote on the moratorium, acknowledged that the city has a “serious problem.”

“We have a city that is hugely dependent on the petroleum industry, and we have about 25,000 people and (they) clash regularly,” he said.

Blake said the long-term issue of petroleum in the city needs to be addressed and solved. The petroleum industry, he said, “will do as much as they can going forward to divert from our existing laws.”

“I’m really concerned about where we are going with the future uses of Rigby Yard,” he added.

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

The South Portland City Council didn’t have enough votes Wednesday, Jan. 20, to enact a six-month moratorium on development of new commercial propane storage and distribution facilities, particularly at Rigby Rail Yard.

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.