SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council conducted a workshop last week to formally introduce the Clear Skies Ordinance, which extends existing zoning restrictions to explicitly prohibit one possibility for future development: that of loading crude oil onto tankers.

Such heavy industry is bigger and far more dangerous to the economic, environmental and physical health of the city than anything that the waterfront has seen in its long history.

A historical perspective is necessary to understand why the Clear Skies Ordinance is an application of good governance.

Municipal zoning is rooted in Colonial times, when gunpowder mills and slaughterhouses were relegated to certain areas of town or excluded from town altogether because they were considered noxious or dangerous business activities.

Under Maine law, zoning must be enacted or modified with public participation and alignment with that city’s comprehensive plan. South Portland’s comprehensive plan acknowledges a long history of changing industries on its working waterfront and sets a vision for the city’s future that leans away from heavy industry and favors more mixed use whenever new developments are proposed.

In the early 20th century, the South Portland working waterfront was dominated by ice handlers, which declined with the advent of modern refrigeration. Various businesses emerged to take ice’s place; ice jobs became coal and salt jobs. South Portland laborers have a long tradition of adaptability.

Oil tankers began unloading crude oil onto a new pipeline built as part of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act to supply Canada with oil during World War II. This was the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (originally Standard Oil and now majority-owned by ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil), which remained in business as the crude oil supply line for eastern Canada long after the Lend-Lease Act expired in 1946.

Canada now produces enough oil internally that the pipeline is becoming obsolete. Throughput volumes were relatively steady at 158 million barrels of crude oil annually at the start of this century, then have fallen each year since 2006 to just over 54 million barrels in 2013. Seventy-one years is a long run for a South Portland waterfront business. Something will inevitably move in to replace underutilized waterfront property left by the pipeline, though, and the comprehensive plan says that such new development should not be another heavy industry.

A crowd of more than 220 citizens donned blue T-shirts with the simple phrase “clear skies” in support of the ordinance during last week’s council workshop. South Portlander Russ Lunt, who was not among the blue-shirted crowd, asked, “Where’s the opposition?”

Good question. Who, after all, would oppose a zoning change that prohibits a business activity in the city that does not take place, has never taken place, is not proposed to take place and is not in keeping with the comprehensive plan and the will of the majority of its citizens?

The answer may be best summarized by one of only two who spoke in opposition – Chris Owen of Steep Falls, who proclaimed during the June 13 meeting of the ordinance’s drafting committee: “Oil is king.”

Indeed, oil is king, and kingdoms are not democracies. The ongoing culture wars that seem increasingly to pit ultraconservatives against everyone else have muddled our view of what government is and of who and what is in charge of our lives. Ultraconservatives love that part of the Constitution that “secures the blessings of liberty” but reject that part about “promoting the general welfare.”

Laissez-faire capitalism allows behemoth corporations like Imperial to make far-reaching decisions that affect the welfare of the whole planet and its inhabitants without public input.

And so, when an issue like South Portland’s Clear Skies Ordinance draws opposition from ultraconservatives seeking to invoke the culture wars, I ask myself, “What is it, exactly, that they’re trying to conserve?”

Not the working waterfront. That is not affected by this ordinance. Not Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, because their struggle stems from free-market forces taking place within a foreign nation. No, this ultraconservatism is about preserving the right of kings. No coincidence that the ultraconservative party in power in Canada that wants South Portland to bow down is called the Tories.

Ultraconservatives cannot outflank the patriotism of South Portland citizenry in exercising its home rule authority over this issue. We are the residents. We are Americans. We are the mainstream majority. We reserve our right, through our elected council members, to determine our future.

I feel confident that the Clear Skies Ordinance will become law, and I am grateful to live in a city that, despite the ultraconservative rhetoric inflamed in the culture wars, shows that good government is both real and possible.

— Special to the Press Herald