A majority of Portland councilors say they are open to the idea of building a new police and fire headquarters in the city’s Libbytown neighborhood, even if the idea came as a surprise when floated by the city manager during a public meeting this month.

However, they also said the plan needs much more discussion and raises questions about costs and financing and environmental problems at the proposed location, which has a long history as the site of a dump and industrial activities. A state review of the past environmental testing in the area confirms there are elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic and lead that could add costs to any redevelopment.

City Manager Jon Jennings broached the idea during a City Council subcommittee meeting nearly two weeks ago about a potential land swap with the Maine Department of Transportation. It took many councilors by surprise, although six out of the nine councilors who responded to questions from the Press Herald said they’re open to exploring the idea.

“I think it could work well to have the police station over there,” City Councilor Kim Cook said. “I had not heard we were even considering moving it from its current location. But I’m certainly open to learning about what the benefits are of moving it there and how we would pay for that.”

Jennings has proposed relocating police to County Way from their current headquarters at 109 Middle St. If that occurs, the city would sell that downtown building for redevelopment. The new facility would include relocating fire administrators and command into the new building, while keeping all of the existing fire stations.

Interim Police Chief Vern Malloch told councilors last week that the move would not negatively affect police operations, because patrolmen spend most of their time in the community. And Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said being co-located with police could be beneficial, because they work on similar issues.But City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he wanted more information about those impacts, as well as the condition of the County Way land. “I’m open to considering it,” he said.

Jennings has proposed partnering with a private developer. The city would donate the land and the developer would build and own the building, which the city would lease back. A similar funding structure has been proposed for a new homeless shelter, which is also being considered for the County Way site.

City officials emphasize that a lot needs to happen before any final decisions can be made.

First, the city needs to acquire the site from the Maine DOT. Councilors are considering swapping land that the state currently leases at the International Marine Terminal under the Casco Bay Bridge.

In return, the city would receive 10 acres of land near County Way, the Park and Ride lot next to the Miss Portland Diner on Marginal Way and the rail line that runs behind Deering Oaks and Hadlock Field from State Street to Park Avenue. Jennings said the state would fund the conversion of that rail line to a shared pathway for bikes and pedestrians.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done, but I feel good about where we’re at now,” Jennings said.

Before the council can vote on the land swap, though, city staff is still doing its due diligence on the County Way properties, a portion of which is split by the Fore River Parkway and other areas that contain wetlands.

Staff members are also investigating other possible environmental concerns, including the presence of toxic soils or materials. The 44-acre property that now holds Mercy’s new hospital had once been listed on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Site list.

Land in that area was an official city dump for demolition debris in the 1960s and 1970s. Scattered old drums, either empty or containing oil products, were removed in the 1980s, according to reports. And in 1987, an internal DEP memo said that “disposal of drums containing hydrocarbon products, motor oil cans, oily metal shavings, etc has occurred on the site.”

Federal and state agencies agreed to remove the land from the lists in 2002 to encourage the Mercy redevelopment, though under special state guidelines known as a Voluntary Response Action Plan.

A more recent environmental assessment conducted by Woodard & Curran at the request of the city indicates portions of the property used to abut a former rail yard and contain ash and coal, while another area was used as a landfill by nearby residences and businesses, with solid waste being observed at and below grade level. Construction soil from the International Marine Terminal was also disposed on the site. And soil tests also showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic in at least a portion of the property. The draft assessment, dated March 6, says additional investigation of the site would be required.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said building a public safety building on County Way was a “compelling idea,” noting that the sale of the downtown building could generate money to invest in affordable housing.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who serves on the Economic Development Committee, which oversees land deals, said his goal is to make sure the city will be able to use the County Way property.

“We want to make sure we’re taking on a site that has some value,” Thibodeau said. “If we were going to take on an obligation like that, we don’t want it to be a landfill.”

If the land deal is approved, the city would have to decide what do with it.

In addition to the public safety building, the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee has listed County Way as one of three potential sites for a 150-bed homeless shelter. Committee Chairwoman Belinda Ray and Jennings said they think the site is large enough for both uses.

Councilor Justin Costa, who leads the Economic Development Committee, called the public safety building proposal “an intriguing idea.” But he is worried that the confluence of the shelter and public safety building proposals will muddy the waters of the land swap. The city needs to be careful not to give the impression that either a shelter of public safety building – or both – are foregone conclusions if the city moves forward with the land swap.

“I would want to make sure that at a minimum if we’re moving forward it’s going to be on the basis of thinking that this is an effective land transaction for the city and that taking over these new parcels is going to be beneficial to us,” Costa said. “Clearly, the public and the people in the neighborhood are going to read into a programmatic implication and I would prefer for the council to get out in front of it.”

City Councilor Jill Duson did not respond to messages seeking comment. And Councilors Brian Batson and Pious Ali requested questions be sent in writing, but did not respond.

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