November 7, 2013

Vote lets South Portland start big public works changes

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After more than a decade of planning and wooing taxpayers, the city is moving ahead with its latest proposal to replace the outdated public works complex on O’Neil Street.

On Tuesday, voters endorsed a $14 million bond issue that will help pay for a new public works complex off Highland Avenue, on the site of the city’s transfer station. The vote was 4,858 to 3,536, a comfortable 1,322-vote margin.

The project will take a few years to complete and calls for moving the transfer station elsewhere on the 10-acre parcel, city officials said Wednesday. It will include demolishing and preparing the current 6-acre complex on O’Neil Street for redevelopment into single-family homes and open space.

“We’re very excited around here, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Doug Howard, public works director. “It could be close to three years before we’re able to move to the new site.”

Based on preliminary plans developed by Sebago Technics and CWS Architects, the new complex will be built where the transfer station is located to allow for proper site development and wetlands protection, Howard said. The transfer station will be moved nearby, where the city now composts leaves, brush and other yard waste.

The transfer station likely will be moved in late 2014 and construction of the new public works complex will begin in mid-2015, with occupancy expected in late 2016, said City Manager Jim Gailey. In the meantime, the city must turn conceptual plans into detailed drawings, get a permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and seek bids from building contractors.

The new complex also will house the city’s parks department and bus service. They share the cluster of small, mid-1900s buildings at the end of O’Neil Street, a residential cul-de-sac off Cottage Road, near Red’s Dairy Freeze. The current complex is surrounded by homes on Pitt, Walnut, Hillside and Kent streets.

“The neighborhood has been very patient,” Gailey said. “Some houses are 25 feet away from what is sometimes round-the-clock activity.”

O’Neil Street resident Ben Welch said he doesn’t really mind the “parade” of public works vehicles and city buses that passes his house daily, though it can get a little “crazy” during snowstorms.

Welch voted for the public works bond because he believes the complex should be in a better location for everyone. He’s also glad the city plans to connect O’Neil Street to Pitt Street, so his street will no longer be a dead end.

“I think it’s good,” Welch said. “My main concern is how the site is going to be redeveloped.”

In addition to being landlocked in a residential neighborhood, the current buildings are old and too small for modern uses, including vehicle maintenance bays that cannot accommodate large public works trucks and city vehicles.

At more than 74,000 square feet, the new complex will include several large vehicle maintenance bays, workshops, indoor parts and equipment storage, covered outdoor vehicle storage and office space.

Some residents near the new location have expressed concerns about increased noise and traffic from public works vehicles and city buses, Gailey said. But the nearest house will be more than 500 feet away and the complex will be 45 feet below the elevation of Highland Avenue, he said.

“We’ll be operating in sort of a bowl, so it will be far less intrusive,” Gailey said.

The project’s total cost is roughly $15.7 million, with an additional $1.7 million to be covered largely by capital improvement funds that have been set aside.

Gailey said he believes voters were swayed to support the public works bond by a payment plan that will limit the impact on taxpayers.

In 2018, the city expects to pay off some old debt, so while the new public works bond will cost the average homeowner about $69 per year, the annual tax bill on a $200,000 home will increase only $22, Gailey said. That breaks down to about 2 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“We felt we had a lot of support going into the election, but you never know if people want to pay for it,” Howard said. “I think residents understood the need to upgrade and move out of this dense neighborhood.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard

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