PORTLAND – A major issue in the recent mayoral campaign was what one candidate called City Hall’s “death of common sense” — a policy pattern of City Hall unaccountability.
The tip of this iceberg came in a column by Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz (“Real change at City Hall hits home for one voter,” Nov. 9). This issue is symbolized by the city’s singular rejection of a minor residential deck expansion.
Sally Trice was seeking to merely extend a small deck at her home that would enhance its value and was supported by neighbors. The property was grandfathered, allowing Trice’s 21-foot setback to continue but not be expanded when the city rezoned the area to an extended 25-foot setback.
Her deck extension was within the earlier established setback and well within the present front of her home. However, it was 8 inches beyond the new setback.
In accordance with the ordinance, the Portland Planning and Urban Development Department rejected Trice’s permit. And the Portland Zoning Board of Appeals denied her appeal for a state “hardship variance.”
For many political observers, this decision gets to the heart of a concern so often echoed by homeowners and city businesses. For them, Nemitz’s profile of Trice’s personal permit experience reflects a flawed City Hall political culture. He characterizes the city’s “nixing” of Trice’s building permit and variance appeal as an issue that requires direct involvement from Portland’s new mayor.
But what Nemitz misses is that many city administrators agree with Trice’s permit request. Yet, as guardians of existing city zoning ordinances and state variance law, they are duty-bound to accurately interpret the ordinance and state law in order to maintain the laws’ integrity.
Regardless, the thumbs-down decision on Trice’s miniscule change defies common sense. It symbolizes public frustration with city business.
“Her circumstance is not unique,” noted Chip Martin, president of the West End Neighborhood Association. “I know of others with similar experiences.”
For many community leaders, it is akin to the letter trumping the spirit and justice of the law.
Minor accommodations — for those like Trice — add up to more jobs and an increased tax base. Such flexible responses would likely discourage the growing perception of a negative City Hall for accurately defending an ordinance or state law. What City Hall concludes may be a “black and white” decision drives residents and businesses nuts.
In practice, zoning is supposed to prevent new development from harming existing residents and businesses. Any cursory observation of Trice’s change confirms that it does no harm at all. Her experience may be the tipping point for City Hall zoning codes that homeowners and businesses find indefensible. Is this what we should expect in a city that prides itself on diverse and creative neighborhoods and businesses?
Observers miss the point when they call for greater administrative flexibility in interpretation. Nemitz does likewise in suggesting the new mayor should trump “nitpicky lawyers” by interfering with the process or lobbying for fewer lawyer appointments on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Most troubling was a city spokesperson’s comment that the city’s new elected mayor could do nothing. That is dead wrong.
Political cultural change requires amending state law or the zoning ordinance. Changing Maine’s state hardship variance requirements will not be easy. A more expeditious route is for City Hall staff and policymakers to change the zoning ordinance.
Mayor-elect Michael Brennan needs only four council votes to change business as usual in City Hall political culture. Continued delay means future City Hall rejections of minuscule or common-sense permits, costing money and time for staff and applicants.
Creative changes of the city’s zoning ordinance could prevent future variance appeals. This would be an incremental step toward a cultural City Hall shift needed for a growing Portland economy and quality of life.
The reality is that zoning codes evolve with a city’s changing planning practices, legal and political conditions. Mayor-elect Brennan and the City Council can work through policy changes with neighborhood association and business leaders.
This could give staff the zoning flexibility — along with resources and council support — to engage more effectively with homeowners and businesses. Done right, these policy changes can enhance Portland’s quality of life.
The road to Portland’s political cultural change can begin with innovative zoning ordinances. This could enable City Hall to respond to Trice-like permit requests in ways that not only make common sense but also are in the public interest.
Ralph Carmona is a member of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization board of directors and was a candidate for Portland mayor in the Nov. 8 election.