Opponents and supporters of a plan to redevelop nearly 10 acres of land on the eastern waterfront are expecting a large turnout for a public hearing Monday night and possible vote by the Portland City Council.

Both sides expect the council will approve a zone change to allow the development and are setting their sights on the next battle, which could be at the ballot box or a courtroom.

Mayor Michael Brennan said Friday afternoon that city staff is drafting three amendments that could allay concerns of neighbors. He said both sides are aware of the amendments, but he would not describe the feedback he has received.

“The discussions are ongoing,” Brennan said.

The council postponed a public hearing and vote originally scheduled for April 6 after learning that the state certification of its Comprehensive Plan – a citywide planning and vision document – had expired. That certification, required every 12 years, ensures that the plan is consistent with Maine’s Growth Management Act, which governs development throughout the state.

Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said Thursday that getting the city’s Comprehensive Plan recertified is going to take longer than originally expected, but the state has told the city it should proceed with regular zoning and development activity.

“I feel like we do a lot of ongoing planning in Portland. Based on my understanding of the Growth Management Act, our plans are consistent with it, so I’m comfortable moving forward,” Levine said.

Having a state-certified plan would allow the city to skip a step in any formal appeal of a zoning action. If opponents appeal any such council action, the city will first have to prove that its plan is in line with state regulations, before dealing with the appeal itself, he said.

Levine said the city will likely file its certification application with the state by the end of the year.

BATTLE LINES

When opponents and supporters square off in council chambers on Monday, they will likely describe what the development means for the future of the city. Developers see an opportunity to create a vibrant waterfront neighborhood, while opponents are worried about losing access to and views of the harbor.

Behind the conflict, however, are highly nuanced, technical arguments that could make or break the project. Those arguments center on the intent behind the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan, which was adopted as part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan in 2004 and describes how building heights should be measured.

The developer, CPB2 LLC, argues that rezoning the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. into a high-density, mixed-use zone that allows residential development was always envisioned as part of the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan. They contend that building heights – which would reach 65 feet in some areas – should be measured by average grade of the land, which would allow for the development of three-story townhouses on Fore Street.

But opponents, calling themselves the Soul of Portland, argue the opposite. They believe that in 2004 the council and Planning Board intended to measure heights from the flood plain, specifically to avoid the development along Fore Street and to preserve the view of Portland Harbor. They have submitted a signed affidavit from a former councilor to attest to that fact

Regardless of the council’s decision, Levine said it will likely stand up to legal scrutiny.

“No matter what heights the council approves for this site, it is unlikely that any of them would not be generally in conformance with the Comp Plan,” Levine said.

POTENTIAL COMPROMISE

Brennan said staff is drafting three amendments that could ease concerns of neighbors, while seeking to preserve the economic viability of the project. The amendments would:

 Prevent housing from being built on Fore Street, from Waterville to Atlantic streets, in exchange for greater residential density elsewhere on the site.

Require the redevelopment to be subject to a so-called inclusionary zoning ordinance, which is currently being considered by councilors. It would require a certain percentage of the housing units in large residential developments to be affordable to low- and middle-income residents.

Require the developer to go through the city’s master planning process.

Brennan would not venture a guess as to whether any of the amendments enjoyed the broad support of the council.

‘AMAZING OPPORTUNITY’

Developer James Brady is a managing partner of CPB2 LLC, which bought the 10-acre Portland Co. site for $14.1 million in 2013. Brady’s partners are Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello.

Brady said Friday that they have already made several concessions to allay concerns of the Soul of Portland group, which wants to preserve the harbor view and access to the Eastern Prom trail.

Developers have agreed to cap building heights on Fore Street to 35 feet and prohibit bars and restaurants from being located there. The zone change would respect three 50-foot-wide view corridors at Waterville, St. Lawrence and Atlantic streets. And access to the trail would be preserved.

Brady said any other restrictions – such as residential development by measuring from flood plain, a citywide referendum or historic preservation – would likely doom the project, the economics of which require height and residential density.

“We made investment decisions with the property specifically because of what’s been filed with the city,” he said. “This is an amazing opportunity for Portland. We desperately need more housing. We desperately need to expand our tax base. Having a project like this not go forward would be very unfortunate.”

Brady said the development team has met with hundreds of residents and business owners to educate them about the project. He is “cautiously optimistic” the zone change will be approved.

‘CITY HALL ISN’T LISTENING’

Soul of Portland organizers have also been working hard to turn out their supporters, according to Anne Rand, the group’s spokeswoman and a former state legislator.

Rand said the group has been keeping its supporters informed through email, social media and phone calls.

The group is not encouraged by the response it has received through one-on-one meetings with councilors, she said.

“Nobody has been agreeing with us,” said Rand, who predicted the council would approve the zone change. “A lot of people feel like City Hall isn’t listening to them.”

That type of reception has the group focused on putting the rezoning to a citywide vote. On Friday, the group announced it had begun collecting signatures for November referendum question that would protect the view of a Portland Harbor along Fore Street and require developers to submit a detailed development plan when seeking a zone change.

So far, CPB2 has only given broad conceptual descriptions of its development plans, since the final plans would depend on the zoning. The conceptual plans discussed by the developer include residential buildings, offices and a Faneuil Hall-style marketplace.

Rand said the Soul of Portland is not anti-development. When asked for her response to Brady’s claim the group’s opposition would kill the project, she replied, “Personally, I don’t believe that. I don’t accept that.”

‘A WAY OUT’

Meanwhile, four Munjoy Hill property owners have retained a lawyer, in case a legal challenge is needed.

Attorney Charles Remmel said only one of his clients, whom he declined to name, lives directly across the street from the development. A representative of his law firm plans to present the council with a compromise on Monday that could head off a potential lawsuit, he said.

Remmel said the firm recommends that the council approve the zone change, but require heights to be measured from the flood plain. The council could later adjust those height measurements when a specific development proposal comes forward, he said.

That would ensure that the public voices are heard during the planning process, rather than stacking the deck in the developer’s favor, he said.

“I think this is a way out for the council,” Remmel said.


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