March 16, 2010

New attitudes gaining toward transit, land use


— By

Staff Writer

High gas prices have people talking about concepts that until now might have seemed too controversial -- maybe even far-fetched. Ideas such as bringing trolleys back to the Portland area.

A year ago, people would have easily dismissed the idea of bringing light rail back to South Portland, said planning director Tex Haeuser. But today, he's so convinced that public attitudes have changed that he decided to talk about his vision at a Planning Board meeting.

It's a lot easier to talk about moving away from the status quo, he said.

''I think this year is something of a watershed year,'' he said. ''In some ways, we're facing a looming disaster. But on the other hand, we've got some frankly cool possibilities.''

Planners who advocate expanding public transit and revamping land-uses policies are finding that higher energy prices are translating into more political support for their ideas from local officials and residents. And while some people question whether attitudes have changed that much, this skepticism isn't stopping planners from bringing forward new ideas.

Perhaps the best example is Haeuser's vision of bringing a modern street car system to the city, with tracks running along the Broadway and Gorham Road corridor and connecting the city's commercial districts with the city's neighborhoods and Southern Maine Community College.

This could be paired with what is known as ''transit-oriented developments,'' where zoning allows for taller buildings near public transportation. Such developments would provide more property tax revenue to the city and help reduce car emissions and sprawl, he said.

But Haeuser is far from alone in proposing new ideas.

In Freeport, town planner Donna Larson has been talking with state and regional planners about introducing a regular bus service between Portland and Brunswick, with stops in each community along the way.

The Freeport Town Council is also moving forward on a plan to make the town's buildings more energy-efficient and is considering a proposal to move Town Hall workers to a four-day work week, thus saving on fuel bills and allowing Town Hall to be open two evenings a week.

Like many towns in the area, Freeport has recently changed zoning rules to allow accessory apartments, commonly referred to as mother-in-law apartments. The board is considering making those rules even more flexible so it would be easier for people with large homes to create apartments in them.

Heating those homes would be more affordable if the owners could share them with more people, Larson said.

Other towns are changing their approach to managing growth.

In Standish, officials have long sought to preserve the town's rural character by spreading out houses and mandating two- or three-acre minimum lot sizes for each new house. Now, officials are trying a different tack. The committee is developing a plan to focus growth around three existing villages and allow for greater housing densities in those areas.

Many people would rather stay in town for services than drive elsewhere, but Standish doesn't have the population density to support many kinds of small business and services, said Carolyn Biegel, chair of the village implementation committee. The town doesn't have a florist for example, and it only has one dentist.

As a result, people have to drive considerable distances for work and services, she said. Standish won't be able to support more local businesses until there are greater population densities in some areas, she said.

''Work locally, shop locally,'' she said. ''That would be the ideal.''

In Portland, several council members want to reduce the number of parking spaces required for every new housing unit built on the peninsula. Moreover, the city is working to establish a ''transit-orientated development zone'' in the Bayside neighborhood.

Developers would have to include methods for reducing the number of automobile trips, such as requiring a percentage of a business's employees to be enrolled in a car-pool program or fund a portion of employees' public transportation costs.

As people look for alternatives to the automobile, they might borrow some ideas from the past, Haeuser said.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, South Portland, Portland and neighboring towns and cities were connected with an electric trolley line.

There are skeptics, though. Steve Linnell, a senior planner at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, said he doesn't think the region is ready for major changes.

High gas prices hit poor families the hardest. But many middle-class families are able to adjust to the higher prices without changing their lifestyle, he said. And the same holds true for many policy makers, who generally are affluent enough to keep to their same driving habits, he said.

''I am not convinced yet that $4 a gallon gas has made that much of a shift,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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