My good friend and personal attorney, Peter Murray, recently defended those in Portland who oppose revisions to zoning regulations to accommodate growth and change (Maine Voices, June 19). I agree that negative generalizations about people with divergent opinions is destructive. Labeling people diminishes the community’s capacity to engage in spirited civic debate about the future of its commonwealth.

However, Peter is not addressing a more important issue: the best method to resolve complex land use issues. As an architect, I have long experience engaging in the process of planning board review and approval. Portland is blessed to have committed, knowledgeable and open-minded Planning Board members and planning staff.

The process for review and approval requires submission of extensive documentation. Applications frequently include hundreds of pages of documents prepared by professional consultants. City planning staff devote dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours to review, evaluate and guide applicants through the approval process. The process allows the public to access applications, attend meetings, provide testimony, submit information and debate the merit of the application. As someone who has participated in the process, I can testify to its thoroughness and inclusivity.

After all the information is gathered, the Planning Board evaluates compliance with the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. Sometimes the decision is straightforward and simple. Sometimes it is nuanced and conditional. Sometimes the ordinance requires revision to allow a project compliant with the comprehensive plan to be approved.

Portland’s zoning ordinance is a complex, layered regulatory document administered by the city. Hundreds of pages in length, it determines how land and buildings can be used and what can be built. The ordinance seeks to balance often competing interests: individual property rights and community interests. Property owners want clarity and continuity in regulatory requirements. Community interests are more broadly defined and documented in the comprehensive plan. Portland recently updated its comprehensive plan after nearly two years of public engagement and process.

One source of friction in the community comes from the goals and aspirations of the comprehensive plan being out of alignment with current land use regulations. This happens because the comprehensive plan reflects the future Portland desires, and regulation frequently memorializes a past that Portland seeks to retain. It is tension between the fluidity of organic growth and change and the static nature of the status quo that at times makes the Planning Board approval process so contentious.


How Portland reconciles conflicting interests matters. The lengthy process prescribed by the zoning ordinance, often frustrating and expensive, ensures a thorough and transparent vetting of complex data and competing interests. The expertise and opinion of many participants is considered in open public process. The Planning Board, and sometimes the City Council, is expected to decide based on a comprehensive assessment of private and public interests.

Portland has an extraordinary group of committed planning professionals, public servants and private citizens working together to serve the best interest of the community. As willing participants in a contentious public process, they are often subject to emotionally charged commentary. In my experience, their response in the face of often-hostile posturing is respect, courtesy and willingness to engage in lengthy civic dialogue. As a result, decisions are made carefully and with due diligence.

Recently, however, the authority of the Planning Board and the City Council to make decisions on contentious land use issues has been challenged by referendum. Political referendums by nature frequently present simple choices on complex issues. Voters in referendums often arbitrate a complex issue without the benefit of a comprehensive assessment of facts. Issues are often framed in ways that invite emotional responses rather than informed deliberation.

The effect of this approach is to replace representative democracy with direct democracy. While both methods are operative in our political system, the complex nature of land use decisions is better served by representative democracy.

While it is understandable that many people would prefer zoning to remain static so their current private property interests are preserved in perpetuity, healthy communities have always experienced change. It is critically important to remain committed to informed civic dialogue as the means to resolve contentious and complicated issues. This is what the Planning Board and City Council do for little to no compensation. They deserve respect and admiration for the difficult work they do balancing private interests while promoting the prosperity of Portland’s commonwealth.


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