Portland officials reversed course on two citizen initiatives Monday, angering activists who had been told that Aug. 7 was the deadline to submit petitions to get rent control and zoning referendums on the November ballot.

In July, the City Clerk’s Office had told Fair Rent Portland and Give Neighborhoods a Voice that the signatures had to be turned in by Aug. 7 to get the initiatives on the Nov. 7 ballot. But Monday afternoon, the city issued a statement saying that neither initiative would be on that ballot because there was not enough time for the City Council to hold a public hearing 90 days before the election.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the 90-day requirement was “just determined today” by the clerk’s office. She noted that Monday marked 92 days before the Nov. 7 election.

“That is the part that was determined today,” Grondin said in an email. “It had previously been overlooked. … We’re obviously sorry for the error, it was definitely not done intentionally.”

It’s unclear when Portland voters will get to weigh in on the measures.

“I cannot say at this point whether or not a special election would be held, as that is something the council will need to decide and vote on,” Grondin said.

Representatives for Fair Rent Portland, which collected about 2,500 signatures in five weeks in an effort to make the November ballot, issued a statement Monday night.

“We at Fair Rent Portland are surprised, disappointed and shocked to learn of the erroneous instructions provided to us by the City Clerk’s Office,” the group said in an email. “Our organization was in close communication with the city clerk from the start of the campaign, who on multiple occasions confirmed that if at least 1,500 valid signatures were submitted by Aug. 7, the referendum would be reviewed by the council in early September and be included on the Nov. 7 ballot.”

The group went on to call on city leaders to “rectify” the situation.

“Portland’s citizens trust our public officials to provide accurate information about the requirements of civic engagement,” the statement said. “To negate an important civic initiative – the result of scores of volunteers, hundreds of hours of donated time, and thousands of engaged citizens – on the basis of an admitted clerical error runs counter to the spirit of the democratic process.

“Fair Rent Portland calls on our publicly elected councilors to rectify this error, avoid an unnecessary and costly special election, and restore confidence in our municipal government.”

Mary Davis of Give Neighborhoods a Voice, which has been collecting signatures since May, said her group also was disappointed by the announcement and hoped to speak to the city’s attorney.

“I’m extremely disappointed and concerned about this,” Davis said. “We think the city should do something about this.”

On Monday morning, Deputy City Clerk Carolyn Dorr had said that each group needed 1,500 valid signatures from registered voters in Portland for the efforts to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. If the petitions were validated, both measures were expected to receive a public hearing before the City Council on Sept. 6.

That was the same time line communicated by City Clerk Katherine Jones in a July 25 email to the Portland Press Herald. Jones was not in the office Monday.

SEEKING MORE SAY ON REZONING

Give Neighborhoods a Voice is looking to give residents more say in rezoning requests – an effort spurred by a developer’s proposal to turn 45 acres of former pastureland abutting the Stroudwater River into a subdivision of 95 single-family homes.

The developer, Camelot Holdings LLC, asked for a zone change so it could build about 15 more homes, while setting aside 25 acres of publicly accessible open space. The change from R-1 to R-3 would shrink the required lot size from 15,000 square feet, about one-third of an acre, to 6,500 square feet.

The City Council approved the zoning change on July 24 despite strong opposition from neighborhood residents.

“People feel like residents in the neighborhood don’t have a seat at the table,” said Davis, an attorney who lives in Stroudwater and has been working on the referendum. She said the group submitted 2,003 signatures from residents across the city.

The proposal, which would allow residents to block a developer’s rezoning request, would be retroactive to include the rezoning of Camelot Farms.

The ordinance would prevent a zone change from being enacted if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet sign a document opposing the change. However, a developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document in support within a 45-day period.

PAC FORMS TO OPPOSE PROPOSAL

On Monday, a new political action committee called One Portland announced its opposition to the proposal, describing it as a “Gated Community Zoning Referendum.”

According to a news release, the group is co-chaired by Heather Sanborn, a state legislator who owns Rising Tide Brewing Co. in East Bayside, and Jess Knox, an innovation consultant who helped defeat a scenic view protection referendum in 2015.

Sanborn said in a written statement that the referendum would hamper the city’s ability to build new housing and shape future development.

“This referendum would be a disaster for Portland,” Sanborn said. “If this referendum passes, it would hamstring our ability to address the needs of our growing city. Our future will remain mired in the past rather than reflecting the smart urban planning and design of today.”

Meanwhile, Fair Rent Portland submitted about 2,500 signatures to the City Clerk’s Office in hopes of getting its rent stabilization measure on the ballot. Organizer Jack O’Brien said at a news conference Monday morning that the group was able to collect the signatures in only five weeks.

“If we had the election today, we would win in a landslide,” said O’Brien, who noted that 62 percent of Portland residents rent their housing. “(It’s) about managing this gentrification in a sustainable and hopeful way rather than just selling it off to the highest bidder.”

Landlords are worried about the measure, said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.

“I am hearing from many concerned landlords and community members who are very concerned that this ordinance will be terrible for Portland,” Vitalius said. “The SMLA intendeds to stay very active around the issue.”

EVOLVING DETAILS ON FAIR RENT PLAN

The details of the ordinance have evolved since it was first announced in May. It would mostly affect landlords who own five or more units across the city. Owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes would be exempt.

O’Brien said the ordinance was drafted that way in an effort to target commercial landlords, who he said are commonly defined as someone who owns more than five rental units.

The proposal would limit rent increases on affected units to the rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for the Greater Portland Region. The group says that over the past five years, the CPI has increased between 0.5 percent and 2.5 percent a year.

The ordinance would raise the city’s current registration fee for rental units by $25 a unit, to $60 a unit from the current rate of $35 a unit.

Units built after Jan. 1 would be exempt, according to an information sheet distributed by the group. Landlords who do not raise rents to the maximum allowed by the ordinance would be able to bank those increases, allowing them to raise rents by up to 10 percent when a new tenant moves in – a provision that can only be used once a year.

It would establish a seven-member landlord-tenant board appointed by the City Council to oversee the rent stabilization ordinance, collect and publish statistics on neighborhood rents, and mediate disputes between tenants and landlords. The board must include four tenants and at least one small-scale landlord.

The board could allow landlords to raise rents in order to improve their properties or for other reasons, as well as assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants.

O’Brien said the board will look at the city’s current ordinances to determine which fines would be appropriate.

But Vitalius said few landlords would be willing to make substantial investments in their properties without being able to recoup that investment in the form of higher rents. That could lead to a deterioration of housing, especially for low-income people.

“With market incentives removed, Portland’s worst housing will remain neglected,” Vitalius said. “These are the units that need updating the most and they will be the most impacted.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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