South Portland Planning Board rejects moratorium on propane depot

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Planning Board voted 6-1 against a City Council recommendation of a six-month moratorium on commercial liquefied petroleum gas storage and distribution facilities.

The council will consider the Planning Board’s vote before making a final decision on whether to enact the moratorium at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 20.

A super majority – five of the seven councilors – must support the moratorium for it to take effect.

The moratorium proposal is a response to a plan from NGL Supply Terminal Co. to build a propane storage facility at the northern end of Rigby Yard. It would halt new LPG storage or distribution facilities not just at Rigby, but throughout the city.

Residents of the Thornton Heights and Cash Corner neighborhoods near Rigby Yard have opposed NGL’s proposal, citing health and safety concerns.

In a first reading in late December, the council voted 4-3 in favor of a moratorium.

Planning Board review was the next step.

Board member Kathleen Phillips opposed Tuesday night’s decision, saying she had “no objection to giving it more time.”

About 15 residents addressed the board during the meeting at the Community Center, and all but three spoke in favor of slowing the process down with a moratorium.

George Corey, of Franklin Terrace, said a moratorium would give the city time to update and refine all parts of the zoning code in question, since one part was added in the late 1970s and another in 1995.

“Both intended to limit the amount of propane in any parcel or property,” he said. However, “instead of perpetuating a limitation on propane,” the convoluted code has allowed people to “reword it, basically in a way that puts the city in danger. That’s one reason there needs to be a time-out, to reformulate these two pieces of confusing legislation.”

Sandra Warren, of Skillings Street, said she and her husband can look out their front window and see Rigby Yard.

“To be honest, this whole process is scary as hell,” Warren said. “For us, if something like this goes through, we’re going to sell our property. We’re not going to live in a property that’s going to be devalued right away.”

Board member Linda Boudreau said she understood residents’ passion about the matter, but the board’s job is to examine the proposal without letting their  emotions come into play.

A moratorium on a project is necessary, she said, only if it will overburden public facilities, or if there is a risk of serious harm from a project.

“Under these criteria, I do not see that the moratorium is necessary,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau said she regularly has planes flying to and from Portland International Jetport over her house. “I suppose there’s a chance that one of those could fall out of the sky,” she said, implying a similar probability to a catastrophic tank explosion. “But I can’t live in that kind of world with those types of fears.”

Boudreau said the board has an “obligation” to let the application go through the normal vetting process.

Other board members said they were conflicted.

“Is a moratorium going to help, (or) is it going to squash the project?” board member Fred Hagan said. “It’s tricky. We have to deal with the facts; we can’t deal with emotions, opinions, we can’t deal with ‘what if.'”

Kevin Fitzgerald, regional operations manager for NGL Energy Partners, said in a statement that company officials were “heartened” by the board’s decision.

“As South Portland’s former fire chief recently stated, the city has all the codes in place to carefully and comprehensively evaluate our application and create a safe project, making any moratorium unnecessary,” Fitzgerald said.

“We remain committed to operating a state-of-the-art facility in South Portland that keeps over 50,000 homes, schools and businesses warm during winter and operating efficiently all year.”

NGL’s application also faces another hurdle.

On Jan. 8, Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette issued a letter saying the proposed 24,000-gallon above-ground storage tank and 16 rail cars NGL wants to employ, for total storage of more than 504,000 gallons, would exceed the maximum 10,000 cubic-foot, or 74,805-gallon, limit allowed by city code.

Doucette’s letter reversed her initial response to the plan, which opponents of the project believed was a misinterpretation of city’s zoning.

Fitzgerald said the company “will appeal (Doucette’s) decision and file additional information with the city.”

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

South Portland resident Stan Jordan holds photos of gas explosions at Tuesday’s meeting of the city Planning Board, where members voted 6-1 against enacting a six-month moritorium on propane storage and distribution facilities. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)

South Portland Planning Board members and Community Planner Steve Puleo study information before voting 6-1 Tuesday against on a proposed six-month moratorium on liquefied petroleum gas facilities during a meeting at the South Portland Community Center. From left are Isaac Misiuk, Linda Boudreau, Kathleen Phillips and Puleo. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)

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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.