The Portland Press Herald recently reported on a meeting in South Portland between real estate developers and Portland city officials, at which concerns about changing zoning in order to accommodate proposed real estate development were deprecated as examples of NIMBYism (short for “not in my backyard”).

The developers complained that objections by Portland residents to their requests for zoning changes are making it difficult to site large real estate development projects in the city. Their complaint seemed to have the implicit support of both the municipal officials at the conference and this newspaper.

Both the speakers at the conference and the newspaper coverage failed to differentiate between local citizens’ efforts to maintain existing zoning regulations in the face of developer pressure for project-based changes, and neighborhood opposition to projects that are permitted by existing zoning and land use regulations.

One can certainly characterize local citizens’ efforts to block or delay projects that comply with established zoning and land use regulations as unreasonable and obstructive. On the other hand, it is a lot harder to criticize citizens who oppose changes to the existing zoning in their neighborhoods to allow projects that would not otherwise comply. They are merely trying to maintain the quality of life that is supposed to be protected for them by the long-term planning and zoning process.

Our existing zoning ordinances are the result of an elaborate planning and legislative process designed to maximize the welfare of all Portland residents in their various neighborhoods. Based on a comprehensive plan, the zoning ordinance seeks to regulate land and building size, location and use in the various neighborhoods so as to maintain a particular character in each neighborhood. Residents are expected to comply with these regulations in the use and improvement of their property. Compliance is enforced.

By the same token, the neighborhood residents can have some sense of security that the zoning ordinances will protect their investments and the amenity of their lives from structures and uses that are deemed inharmonious with what is permitted in that locality.


Portland has long taken its zoning and land use regulation seriously. Homeowners and small businesses are required to comply with local zoning and are not given special dispensation or zone changes to accommodate their wishes.

However, in recent years, it appears that a double standard is emerging. While zoning still counts for ordinary citizens and small landowners, larger developers with more ambitious projects seem to be able to obtain changes in zoning for their proposals almost at will.

Current examples include not only the outsized cold-storage warehouse being proposed for West Commercial Street, but also the massive residential development proposed on outer Westbrook Street, and the grandiose proposals for redevelopment of the Portland Co. property at 58 Fore St. What these projects have in common is that each of them is of massive scale compared with the usual Portland project, each of them will have a major adverse effect on the quality of life of many neighborhood residents, and each of them requires a zone change that departs from the city’s long-range plan for the affected neighborhood.

It is not fair to disparage the efforts of citizens who object to the loss of existing zoning protections in their neighborhoods as obstructive NIMBYism. Portland’s record with grandiose projects allowed to sprout in neighborhoods not originally designed for them has not been good.

The 1960s-era Portland House, as well as Promenade East from the 1970s, have forever compromised the skyline of the eastern half of the city. I can imagine visitors thinking: “How could they ever have let those be built?” Holiday Inn by the Bay, across from the McLellan-Sweat Mansion on Spring Street, has been an eyesore ever since it was constructed. Ditto for Franklin Towers.

Every time we have put aside our carefully planned land use regulations to accommodate a grandiose individual project, we have come to regret it. So let’s not be so hard on those of our fellow citizens who believe in the quality and integrity of our long-term planning and zoning and want to protect it. They may be really saving our city from our own shortsightedness.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.