Votes by the Portland City Council on Monday night clear the way for a developer to construct a new office building in South Portland that will house a regional branch of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The six 8-1 votes to grant utility easements came after charged testimony by members of the public, the developers responsible for the project, and city councilors, who tussled over the state’s policy decision to move the offices from downtown Portland to an area accessible primarily by car or public bus. Mayor Michael Brennan was the lone dissenter.

The easements were part of a 1997 agreement between Brooklawn Memorial Park, which owns the development site, and the city of Portland, which at the time bought land from the cemetery for an expansion of Portland International Jetport. The agreement stipulated that future developments at the Brooklawn parcel be granted utility easements.

Several councilors lamented the state’s decision to move the offices but returned to the city’s contractual obligation signed 17 years ago.

“Its a bad decision, but this developer didn’t make that decision,” said Councilor Jill Duson. “They applied in a flawed process, but they won. We should not violate a contract agreement.”

Brennan, who voiced loud opposition to the move of the state agency from intown Portland, tried to delay the votes, potentially pushing the developers beyond a March 15 deadline with the state to secure building permits.

State officials signed a contract in January with ELC Management Inc. of Portland to lease space for the DHHS and Maine Department of Labor in a 75,000-square-foot building proposed for 151 Jetport Blvd. in South Portland. The two-story building will be surrounded by 425 parking spaces, and must be ready for occupancy between Jan 1, 2015, and Feb. 28, 2015, according to the lease. The DHHS must vacate its current offices on Marginal Way in Portland by Jan. 31, 2015.

The agreement stipulates that permits must be in place by March 15 and construction must start by April 16. In comments to the council, Kenneth Cianchette, a principal at ELC, said the state had given his company dispensation to go beyond the March deadline.

“The delay tonight would not be a wise move,” Cianchette said. “A delay will only bring a lawsuit, which we do not want to do.”

Brennan briefly argued that the city had only recently received a traffic study on the project, and didn’t have a chance to review stipulations attached to the project by the South Portland Planning Board, but his attempt to delay the easement votes was quickly quashed by the council.

Gov. Paul LePage and Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, have championed the move as a consolidation of regional offices of two state departments that will save taxpayers $23.4 million over the course of the 30-year lease.

But advocates for the homeless and the working poor have said that moving DHHS from Marginal Way would make it more difficult for the department’s low-income and homeless clients to receive benefits and services.

“When I need to meet with a caseworker I can walk down the hill to the Health and Human Services office,” said Jim Devine, who used to be homeless and now is an advocate with Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice. “If I have to go to DHHS (after the move), how will I get there? The new offices will be four miles from my house.”

Before the votes, Brennan made a final plea to the developers to do the right thing, withdraw from the project, and force the state to return to the bidding process, which he and others characterized as flawed.

“I’m profoundly sad that the state has acted in such a callous way and has been totally deaf to our request to work with them,” Brennan said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH