September 12, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Portland mayor gives up inches, gets a smile

By Bill Nemitz

What a difference a full-time mayor makes.

click image to enlarge

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

Don't believe me? Just ask Sally Trice.

"I'm wondering if any of this would have happened if we still had our old mayor system," Trice said Tuesday. "I really felt heard by Mike."

That would be Michael Brennan, who's rounding the bend on his first year as the first full-time, popularly elected mayor to preside over Portland City Hall in almost a century.

Which, as far as Trice is concerned, is a good thing.

When she last appeared in this space, 10 months ago, Trice was one frustrated citizen. She wanted to add a small deck to her modest home on dead-end Dorset Street, but had run into a brick wall with the city over a zoning ordinance that bordered somewhere between onerous and downright absurd.

Trice's problem: Her home sits 21 feet back from the street. That was just enough to meet the city's setback requirement back when the house was built in the 1950s, but 4 feet less than the 25-foot setback approved by the city a few years later.

Trice's house, like several others on Dorset Street, was exempt from the new requirement as pre-existing construction.

But when she went to City Hall last year to get a building permit for the 6-foot-by-8-foot deck she envisioned by her side door, Trice got a rude awakening: Her proposed deck, while 8 inches farther from the road than the corner of her house, constituted new construction and thus was subject to the newer, 25-foot setback.

In other words, request denied.

"It's the culture of City Hall: This is the way it is, this is the way it's been, this is the way it works -- end of story," lamented Trice at the time. "No room for innovation, no room for change."

Enter Hizzoner Brennan.

"We can be responsive," Brennan said Tuesday in an interview in his small office just off the Portland City Council chamber. "We can pay attention to things -- even when it's just a matter of inches."

Trice first crossed paths with the just-elected Brennan in December at Portland's winter farmers market. She reiterated her gripe (Brennan already had read all about it) and asked what, if anything, the new mayor could do for her.

A few weeks later, Brennan's administrative assistant called to ask Trice if the mayor and one or two other city officials could stop by her house for a look-see. They even set a date -- although that meeting had to be postponed when it coincided with President Obama's visit to Portland in late March.

("I completely understand your priorities in this matter," responded Trice to Brennan's last-minute request for a postponement.)

Then, on May 1, Brennan showed up at Trice's home along with City Councilor Ed Suslovic and Mike Murray, the city's neighborhoods and island services administrator.

"They sat right at my kitchen table," recalled Trice. "I was so impressed with that -- three local officials who took the time from their busy schedules to come here and actually see what was happening."

It got better.

In June, the city's planning staff presented the Planning Board with a proposed amendment to the ordinance covering the R-3 zone in which Trice resides: Rather than stick to the once-size-fits-all, 25-foot setback, it allows the distance to be determined by averaging the setbacks of other structures (including the closer, exempt ones) up and down the street.

The Planning Board passed the measure unanimously.

On it went to the City Council for the first of two readings in early August. It passed again.

Then, last week, after a brief public hearing at which Trice stood up to say she was "heartened merely to be heard," a unanimous council gave final passage to the zoning change. Just before the vote, Suslovic thanked Trice "for your patience."

(Continued on page 2)

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