Urban planners urge Portland, South Portland not to ignore climate change threats

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After five days of tours and conversations, eight members of the Urban Land Institute found Portland and South Portland are making headway in preparing for rising sea levels and climate change.

Which is not to say they didn’t find much more could be done.

“It is an opportunity for Portland and South Portland to set a footprint,” Jim DeFrancia said Friday during a two-hour summary presentation at Southern Maine Community College.

DeFrancia, a developer from Aspen, Colorado, headed the ULI advisory panel that visited the cities as a part of an $800,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation. He said the full report will take six to eight weeks to produce.

The presentation at SMCC drew Portland Mayor Michael Brennan; Portland City Councilors Jill Duson, Jon Hinck, and Ed Suslovic; Portland Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky; Portland Planning Director Jeff Levine; South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey; South Portland School Board member Mary House; South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser, and Southern Maine Community College President Ronald Cantor.

The panel was asked how the cities can best prepare for rising sea levels in terms of infrastructure and economic protection, historic preservation and emergency procedures.

By continued diversification of the area economy, construction of berms and green infrastructure for improved drainage, zoning revisions to elevate construction over projected flood plains, and sharing data and ideas, the panel concluded the cities can minimize effects of sea levels that are expected to rise as much as 17 inches in the next century.

Final recommendations also included forming a climate risk data group and a resilience working group with officials and residents from both cities.

Most of all, the cities should have a clear grasp on what they are facing, said Byron Stigge, who directs consultants for New York-based Level Infrastructure.

“(Risk assessment) is the foundation to resilience planning, the analytical framework to answer the questions you folks gave us,” Stigge said.

He urged leaders to begin determining what level of risk they should plan for, based on the probability of storms and rising water levels and what economic and physical damage could be expected.

Petroleum storage, marinas, the container ship terminal, electrical and sanitary pump stations, and neighborhoods including Willard Beach in South Portland are possibly at risk, Stigge said.

That tourism is a key driver in the local economy was not a revelation, but its effect on the working waterfront surprised Cori Packard Beasley, a professor at the New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate.

“The authenticity of waterfront piers is critical to the tourism here,” Beasley said.

Fishing, housing and warehousing and distribution were also economic drivers identified by Beasley and Richard Ward, a development consultant from St. Louis. The two recommended ways to strengthen the health-care, cultural and high-tech fields to alleviate the possible economic dangers posed by rising sea levels.

To better protect waterfront areas, Boston University professor Dennis Carlberg and Stephen Antupit, a planner with Seattle-based CityWorks, said physical buffers on shorelines can protect waterfronts, as would elevating construction on piers or designs that allow water to flow under structures.

The panel concluded more resilient barriers on Portland’ waterfront will also protect historic buildings across Commercial Street, while warning the Willard Beach area is “where exposures to nor’easters is really more profound.”

Forming working groups was the most immediate recommendation.

The first group would gather, update and store data on the possible risks of climate change and rising sea levels, while the second would form and implement solutions.

The working groups should be non-regulatory, and draw from elements of the community, as well as larger organizations like the Greater Portland Council of Governments, Gulf of Maine Institute and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

Founded in 1936, ULI has more than 32,000 members globally, drawing from the realms of business and academia to provide assessments and advice without conflicts of interest.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.