SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council Tuesday opted to “kick the can down the road” and buy more time to decide what to do with Whitney Avenue, a so-called paper street that connects Main Street and Huntress Avenue.
Paper streets are roads that were laid out in subdivisions, but never built or accepted by the city as public ways. In 1987, the Maine Legislature gave municipalities up to 20 years – with an option for a second 20-year extension – to either accept paper streets as public ways, or vacate their interest and allow abutting property owners to determine the future uses of the land.
There are seven parcels that abut Whitney Avenue: two residences, four commercial businesses and one vacant lot.
City Manager Scott Morelli said during the Jan. 8 workshop that in 2015, Maine Roofing asked the city to accept Whitney Avenue. However, in September 2017, the council voted to again extend its option to accept the street for another 20 years, along with 58 other paper streets.
At that time, city staff formed a working group to address all remaining paper streets and recommend whether to accept or vacate them by December 2020.
In May 2018, another abutter, Messer Petroleum Equipment, also asked to have Whitney Avenue accepted by the city. It became one of the first paper streets addressed by the Paper Streets Working Group, which is headed by Community Planner Steve Puleo.
The status as a paper street gives the city the right to accept Whitney Avenue as a public way until 2037, although it is not considered city land.
Messer Petroleum Equipment President Jeffrey Messer said a portion of Whitney Avenue is traversed daily by more than a dozen petroleum delivery trucks and is also used by customers to access repair bays and the company parking lot.
Without maintenance by the city, Messer said, the street has fallen into disrepair.
In a letter to city staff, Maine Roofing owners Bill and Liz Darling said that until 2017, when the city allowed two residences to be built across from their shop at 24 Bishop Ave., they took tractor-trailer deliveries on Bishop Avenue.
But with increased pedestrian traffic and residents parking in the street, the Darlings said deliveries have been made at the back of their building, by way of Whitney Avenue.
“Because both sides of Whitney Avenue are commercially zoned, we feel that this is a much better alternative for both the neighborhood and our business,” the Darlings said.
According to city Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett, a municipality typically only accepts a street after it has been improved to the municipality’s standards at the expense of the original developer or the abutters.
Morelli said city staff believe it would cost “several hundred thousand dollars” for the road to be developed, which would begin with a site survey and design. That alone is estimated to be around $32,660.
If Whitney Avenue is vacated, one option recommended by Morelli would be for abutters to pay to improve the road to city standards and then ask the council to accept it. Once accepted, maintenance would become the city’s responsibility.
“There does not appear to be a clear public benefit to constructing such a roadway,” Morelli said. “The benefit rests mainly with one or two abutters.”
Additionally, Morelli said, given the state of South Portland’s roads and sidewalks and the “growing list” of requests for new or improved pedestrian access, he’d find it difficult to justify the cost.
Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny, Public Works Director Doug Howard, Parks Director Kevin Adams and Economic Development Director William Mann shared Morelli’s opinion.
Three staff members recommended the city maintain its interest in Whitney Avenue until 2037. Dave Thomes, the city’s collection systems manager, said there may be a future need to install a sewer and/or stormwater line, and Police Chief Edward Googins indicated it should be accepted and improved for passage; Fire Chief James Wilson did not indicate a reason he supported the extension.
Councilor Maxime Beecher said she’d be in favor of the city vacating Whitney Avenue. Daggett noted that, unless the city’s rights simply lapsed in either 2017 or 2037, the vacation process is a “lengthy and costly one” that would likely “create more issues for everyone.”
Councilor April Caricchio said her first choice would be to accept the street and wondered if it could be built as a dead end, so it couldn’t be used as a through street from Main to Huntress.
Councilors agreed that, given the costs, they would do nothing and maintain the city’s rights. But they agreed to meet again with stakeholders to find a compromise before 2037.
“I’m leaning towards kicking the can down the road,” Councilor Misha Pride said. “This year is not a great year to accept this expensive of a project.”
The City Council will maintain the city’s public right of access to a so-called paper street connecting Main Street and Huntress Avenue after several commercial businesses asked them to accept their rights and construct it as a public right of way.