Newly elected South Portland City Councilor Eben Rose said this week his goal in imposing a moratorium on a proposed new liquid propane distribution facility at the Rigby Rail Yard is to send a clear message to city staff and the developer.

“This project is against our zoning, period,” he said, prior to Monday’s council meeting, where the proposed moratorium was scheduled for reconsideration.

At the same time, the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce both released statements stating their opposition to the temporary development ban.

The Dec. 21 council meeting was held after the Current’s early holiday print deadline.

Rose is reiterating an argument he first made this past spring, when NGL Supply Co. originally approached the city about moving its operations to South Portland from the Portland waterfront.

That initial proposal was for the construction of six, 60,000-gallon, above-ground tanks to hold liquid propane that would come in by rail and then be transferred to delivery trucks.

After that original project was rejected as being against city ordinances, the company came back with a scaled-down proposal to build one, above-ground, 24,000-gallon storage tank.

In the spring, Rose, who had not yet announced his intention of running for the City Council, argued the NGL project should have been “dead on arrival” because it violates a city ordinance that limits gas storage in excess of 10,000 cubic feet.

Rose told the Current the same thing this week: “This (project) is just not allowed and staff needs to (understand) our ordinances are not optional. This project has been against our zoning all along.”

He also argued that city staff has developed a pattern of ignoring zoning rules, and part of his goal with the moratorium is to “fix this problem, which is both immediate and long-term.”

Meanwhile, after some back and forth with the developer, Planning Director Tex Haeuser has sent a letter to NGL stating its application for the scaled-down project is now complete and the Planning Board may take up the proposal at its Jan. 12 meeting.

Haeuser’s letter, dated Dec. 14, reads in part, “While we feel more information is still needed in some cases, our determination is that the application is now complete … In keeping with our review time frames, and barring any City Council action to the contrary, we are scheduling this project for a public hearing” in early January.

The City Council action Haeuser references in his letter is the moratorium, which would allow the council “time to study liquefied petroleum gas storage and distribution facilities and to develop any appropriate ordinance amendments,” according to a memo prepared for the council by City Manager Jim Gailey.

Gailey said if the 4-3 decision to table the moratorium at the Dec. 9 meeting is overturned this week, as both Rose and Mayor Tom Blake hope will be the case, the plan would be for the proposed ban on the NGL project to be retroactive to the Dec. 9 date.

If ultimately approved, Gailey said, the moratorium would then run through June 16.

Under procedural rules, any councilor voting in the majority can request an item be brought back for reconsideration at the next regular meeting.

Rose has said he made a mistake in voting to table the proposed moratorium when it came up earlier this month and he’s hoping to correct that error with a revote this week.

On Monday, the council is scheduled to first vote on whether to allow the reconsideration. If that were approved, then councilors would vote, once again, on whether to impose the moratorium.

For final approval, a super majority of five votes is required, but for this first reading only a simple majority is needed to send the issue to the Planning Board for a public hearing.

Along with Blake and Rose, councilors Brad Fox and Patti Smith are likely to vote in favor of the moratorium, supplying the needed four-vote majority to move the development ban forward one more step.

Prior to Monday’s council meeting, Blake told the Current the moratorium is not “specifically directed at NGL,” arguing the point is to allow the city “to take a breath” and decide whether an update to the fire codes is necessary to ensure public safety.

Blake also said that if any changes were made to the fire codes, “it would be citywide and would impact anyone in any zone.” He also argued there’s a chance no changes would be made to the fire codes or that any changes made “may not impact NGL at all.”

However, officials at NGL feel both the proposed moratorium and updates to the fire codes, which the City Council is set to discuss in a workshop session on Dec. 28, are both clearly directed at the company and its plans to develop a liquid propane distribution facility in South Portland.

Prior to the Dec. 9 council meeting, NGL sent a statement to the Current saying: “Because these (fire code) amendments appear so narrowly drawn as to target our project exclusively, we will actively monitor council deliberations and, should the council enact these amendments as written, reserve the right to pursue all means of redress, including legal action.”

After the meeting, when it appeared as if the moratorium was dead, Kevin Fitzgerald, regional operations manager for NGL, said, “NGL looks forward to presenting our proposal to the Planning Board and hopes that the City Council will allow that process to move forward in a cooperative, predictable and transparent manner.”

In its statement, released Dec. 16, the local chamber said, in part:

“The (chamber board) has observed the recent South Portland municipal deliberations relative to the proposed liquid propane storage depot at Rigby Rail Yard (and), after due consideration, the board voted to oppose any efforts to modify the city’s fire code or pursue a moratorium with the intended effect of prohibiting the proposed storage depot.”

The statement went on to say, “This project should be considered on its own merits, pursuant to existing laws, ordinances and municipal processes. Such continuity encourages business growth, economic development and continued prosperity.”

And the Portland chamber’s statement, released Dec. 21, is similar, stating, in part:

“(We) agree with the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth chamber … and share their concern over the treatment that NGL has received to date. A moratorium on liquid propane terminal development within the city, as well as amendments to the fire code, represent delaying tactics despite clear testimony from the city’s respected former Fire Chief that such actions are unnecessary to protect the health and safety of local residents.”

The Portland chamber went on to say, “Failure to allow a permitting process to proceed in a predictable, fair way sends a chilling message to any legitimate business interested in operating within or relocating to South Portland.

“Businesses of all kinds rely upon transparent, predictable and fair municipal processes to make critical business decisions. We hope the South Portland City Council will provide a timely and thorough review of NGL’s completed application without further delay.”

South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Chamber board member Mike Vaillancourt told the Current this week the group felt the need to speak out because “South Portland’s existing ordinances already provide a thorough, comprehensive process for the review of proposals (like) NGL’s. To attempt to modify that process post-application is unfair and sends a negative message to businesses.”

He said the group’s hope is that the chamber’s “opposition to both the moratorium and the fire code amendment will sway city leaders to refrain from enacting these changes. More fundamentally, we hope that the chamber board’s position plays a role in causing city leaders to carefully weigh economic and business impacts when considering any future ordinance changes.”

The local chamber is not the only group in South Portland to send the City Council guidance on the NGL project. In early November, the Conservation Commission sent a letter to then Mayor Linda Cohen.

In that letter the commission raised concerns about the city continuing the “perpetuation of fossil fuel infrastructure” by allowing the new liquid propane distribution facility to be built.

In its letter, the Conservation Commission said it “recognizes the dilemma that (liquid propane gas) and other fossil fuels present to the city” since the “vast majority of its residents depend on such fuels for the greater part of their energy needs.”

But, the letter also said, “At the same time, the commission understands that continued dependence on fossil fuels is ultimately environmentally destructive, economically unsustainable and potentially unsafe.”

The city of South Portland continues the debate regarding a controversial proposal to build a new liquid propane distribution facility at the Rigby Rail Yard.

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