The Portland City Council voted early Thursday morning to put two citizen initiatives on the November ballot. One measure seeks to rein in rising rents and the other would give neighbors more say in the city’s rezoning process.

The council originally had scheduled public hearings on the initiatives for 6 p.m. But a busy agenda that included lengthy discussions on affordable-housing incentives and a controversial proposal to increase allowable building heights along the western waterfront delayed the start of the initiatives discussion until 9:45 p.m. and the final votes until just after midnight.

The council also voted to include a summary of each initiative, as well as the full ordinance language, on the ballot.

“I think it’s nice when we have more information in the booth, right there,” said Councilor Belinda Ray, who tried to draft a concise summary of the 16-page rent ordinance, but the result turned out to be inaccurate.

Mayor Ethan Strimling opposed putting the full ordinances on the ballot, saying he thought that would intimidate voters and reduce support for the measures.

Other than the putting them on the ballot, the only other actions available to the council would have been to adopt the ordinances outright or put the proposals on the ballot along with a competing measure.

Both initiative efforts came as the city experiences a development boom of mostly market-rate apartments, condominiums and hotels. The strong demand for housing has been pushing up rents, making city living more unaffordable for both low-income and middle-income residents.

Strong and continued interest in housing projects in Maine’s largest city, coupled with largely outdated zoning, often compels developers to seek zoning changes from the city so they can build taller buildings with more units. Most of those requests are granted, prompting some residents to be concerned about losing the character of their neighborhoods.

Groups have already formed to oppose both initiatives. Landlords and contractors formed “Say No to Rent Control” to fight the rent ordinance, and One Portland opposes the rezoning initiative.

Mary Davis, a leader of Give Neighborhoods A Voice, the group looking to change the city’s rezoning process to give neighbors more say, said people move into neighborhoods based on existing character.

“They expect the zoning to protect them,” she said. “Many Portland residents feel like it hasn’t protected them.”

The proposal would prevent a zone change from being enacted if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet of a development site 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 within 45 days.

The initiative was spurred by a developer’s proposal to turn 45 acres of former pastureland abutting the Stroudwater River into a subdivision of nearly 100 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 zoning 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 council had approved the zoning change July 24 despite strong opposition from neighbors, but the ordinance, if adopted, would be retroactive to that rezoning.

The Portland Society for Architecture opposes the ordinance, saying the process currently allows for public comment and that the council is accountable to voters.

David Pierson, a land-use attorney who lives in Stroudwater, voiced strong opposition to the ordinance.

“This is probably the worst piece of land-use legislation I have ever seen,” Pierson said. “It would allow a very small group of citizens to block almost any change to the zoning ordinance in the city.”The council also held a public hearing Wednesday on a proposal to rein in rent increases.

A group called Fair Rent Portland is pushing an initiative to limit increases to the rate of inflation plus any property tax increases for landlords who own six or more units, a number that advocates say constitutes a commercial landlord. Apartment buildings built after Jan. 1 would be exempt.

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

It would have the ability to grant waivers for landlords who need to raise rents in order to improve their properties, as well as assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants.

Advocates said the ordinance is needed to deter gentrification, so restaurant servers, artists and students can afford to live in the city. Landlords, however, argued that the ordinance would have unintended consequences, including reducing housing supply if landlords choose to convert apartments into condos.

In addition to discussing the merits of the proposal, speakers debated Wednesday whether the council should place the entire rent ordinance on the ballot.

Jack O’Brien, a Fair Rent Organizer and statistics professor, said he analyzed previous election results and found that including the entire ordinance would cause people to vote against the measure because they would be intimidated by the language.

“To put it all on the ballot is to deliberately suppress support for the measure at the ballot box, which is when the majority of voters make their decision,” O’Brien said.

Landlords, however, said including the full ordinance would ensure that voters had all of the information when making a decision.

“This is so complicated the whole ordinance really needs to be on there,” said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and spokesman for Say No To Rent Control.

Ultimately the council decided to include the full language on the ballot, as well as a summary.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, has called Fair Rent Portland’s ordinance “model legislation” that he planned to introduce at the state level.

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

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