South Portland councilors to get iPads, clash over Willard Square zoning

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SOUTH PORTLAND — If city councilors and sixth-graders have one thing in common it is this: they are all getting Apple iPads.

The council on Wednesday voted 5-1, with Councilor Al Livingston opposed, to spend $6,500 on the tablet computers, a price that includes year-round data plans for $2,100.

The council also approved an iPad policy, but amended a portion of the proposal dealing with replacing lost or stolen iPads, which cost $630 each.

The policy would have required councilors to bear the full cost of replacing lost or stolen iPads. 

“I think it’s rather unreasonable under any situations where it’s lost or stolen to be 100 percent responsible,” said Councilor Tom Blake, suggesting iPads could be stolen at meetings. “We know how quickly things disappear in life.”

Councilors voted 6-1, with Councilor Jim Hughes opposed, for an amendment that leaves the replacement cost, if any, of lost or stolen iPads up to the council.

While the iPads are to be used during city meetings and workshops, councilors may also download additional apps at their own cost for their personal use.

Funding for the iPads and data plans will come from undesignated surplus this year, and likely from the general fund in the future.

Willard Square

If the iPad decision was quick, a first reading of proposed zone changes in Willard Square was anything but that.

Councilors debated several proposed changes for about an hour and a half. The biggest sticking point was a Planning Board recommendation to remove ordinance language that requires commercial use on the first floor of the 12 buildings in Willard Square.

Preble Street resident Margaret Carmody already lives on the first floor of her property in Willard Square, but if she were to propose enough renovation to trigger a site plan review, she could end up subject to the rule. She said the restriction, which has been in place since the Willard Square zone was enacted in 2006, removes her personal property rights.

“It is the wrong precedent for the city to set,” Carmody said. “All property owners should pay attention to this.”

Initially, a majority of the seven councilors were inclined to keep the restriction in place, despite the Planning Board’s desire to remove it.

But Councilors Blake, Livingston and Patti Smith all argued that market forces should determine the use of space, not the city.

Blake, a property manager, said property owners would face an additional burden when trying to fill their buildings.

“(Vacancy rates) are incredibly high,” he said. “They’re higher for commercial than residential. We’re putting property owners in a position where they could expend considerable funds trying to rent a first floor unit that isn’t rentable.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher was originally inclined to keep the restriction in place, saying a waiver provision is enough property-owner protection. But she changed her mind after Planning Director Tex Haeuser explained the Planning Board’s position.

Haeuser said several residents believe the commercial requirement would lead to too much commercial activity in the square.

Beecher’s turnaround frustrated Councilor Tom Coward, who called the change a “wholesale revision” to the ordinance. 

“I really resent this whole process running away from us,” Coward said. “My fear at the time (of the moratorium) was this would get out of hand and this is exactly what I was afraid of.”

The amendment passed 4-3 vote, with Coward, Hughes and Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis opposed.

The new zoning rules also would have also required commercial property owners to install bike racks, but councilors put off that regulation to examine a citywide bike policy.

The ordinance passed first reading 5-2, with Hughes and De Angelis opposed. Final action on the changes is slated for Sept. 19.

The moratorium on new construction in the square was also extended by 30 days to give the council time to conduct final votes on the zoning and for the revised rules to take effect.

Other business

The council also reappropriated $20,000 in federal grant money for low-income neighborhoods towards the purchase of a trailer that is now used as a social services resource hub in the Redbank and Brickhill area.

Originally, the resource hub was going to be established in an unsed portable classroom owned by the School Department. But Gailey said that classroom was in a condition to be reused.

Instead, the city has been renting a trailer for $430 a month, but that rent increased to $461 a month in July. Gailey said the city could save $2,000 over the next three years by buying the trailer for $14,600.

Gailey said the city plans to connect the trailer to the city’s sewer and water systems, so waste will not have to be pumped out and water will not have to be trucked in.

Another $10,000 in grants was reappropriated to fix the basketball court in LeGere Park on Waterman Drive.

Councilors also approved the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Rotary’s request to bring a “Winter Fest” to Mill Creek Park in February 2012.

The rotary is also donating a portable ice skating shelter at Mill Creek Pond, but Rotarian Dan Mooers said he is unsure whether the shelter will be ready for this skating season.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 1oo or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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