A series of conflicts over development in Portland has inspired smart-growth advocates to organize a dialogue among residents, city planners and developers about ways to better incorporate public input into the city’s planning process and avoid costly lawsuits over developments in Maine’s largest city.

The forum – “A Panorama on Portland’s Growth: Can Public Process Bridge the Gap?” – is being organized by GrowSmart Maine, an advocacy group that seeks to balance new development with protecting natural and historic resources. It will be held from 8 a.m. to noon on June 9 in Rines Auditorium at the Portland Public Library.

The goal is to find ways to improve the public planning process for everyone during a time when Portland is experiencing a surge in real estate development.

“With the recession past us, Portland is growing again, and this is a good thing. But the pressures on housing, transportation and public space are creating a tension that seems often to result in neighborhood opposition to what GrowSmart Maine views as sound development proposals,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine. “There has to be a more productive way to acknowledge the value of public feedback with the predictability and consistency essential to the developers. Our goal with the event is to really dig into that issue and produce actionable proposals for those who want to see a better public process.”

After decades of mostly affordable and low-income housing developments, the city of Portland has seen a rise in market-rate and luxury residential development to meet an overall increase in housing demand. The relatively rapid rate of growth of apartments and condominiums, coupled with rising rents for existing units, has created anxiety among existing residents, who worry about not being able to afford to remain in the city, and those who can afford to remain but are concerned that the city will lose its charm.

That anxiety has manifested itself in several ways. Residents often fill City Council chambers to oppose zoning changes that allow for taller buildings and greater residential density, and try to rein in ambitious developments during Planning Board meetings. When unsuccessful in those forums, some have filed lawsuits to exert their will, or to delay a project long enough to stop it altogether.

Last November, developers were alarmed by a citywide referendum that they feared would stop most new development in the city. The question would have preserved “view corridors” throughout the city, starting along upper Fore Street, looking out over Casco Bay. The referendum was in response to a proposal to redevelop the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St.

The initiative, which was financed by people who could lose the ocean views from their homes, ultimately failed at the ballot box, but it was a wake-up call for developers, city planners and politicians alike.

The June 9 forum will include presentations from city planners, developers, advocacy groups and neighborhood associations, as well as informal breakout sessions that are designed to identify common themes and possible solutions for improving the public process for proposed developments. It will also include a presentation by Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s planning director, Rick Taintor, and Steve Joncus, a real estate consultant in Lowell, Massachusetts.

City Planner Jeff Levine will discuss Portland’s existing planning process, while local developers Jonathan Culley, Vin Veroneau, Peter Bass, Ethan Boxer-Macomber and Kevin Bunker will talk about how they choose locations for their projects, take into account the existing characteristics of a neighborhood and conduct outreach to existing residents, as well as highlighting their biggest challenges.

Neighborhood leaders will be given an opportunity to describe their ideal public planning process and how they would like developers to engage the community, as well as offer ideas about how to resolve neighborhood conflicts without turning to the courts or citywide referendums.

The session will also include breakout sessions at which participants will be asked to identify common issues that emerged from the presentations. They will be asked to prioritize the top five problems and then propose possible solutions. The event will conclude with a recap of common solutions and unresolved issues.

There is a $20 registration fee to attend the event, but there are scholarships available upon request via email to [email protected]. Register online at GrowSmartMaine.org.

filed under: