Portland residents will vote in November on a citizens initiative that would limit the size of new homeless shelters – a move meant to derail the city’s plans to build a 200-bed shelter in Riverton.

Smaller Shelters for Portland, the group behind the effort, said it submitted petitions last Thursday and was informed by city officials Tuesday that it has at least 1,500 signatures, the threshold needed to put the proposal on the ballot.

The referendum would limit the size of most new emergency shelters to 50 beds, while making other changes to standards new shelters must meet. Shelters serving families or domestic violence victims would be excluded from the new limit. And existing shelters would not be impacted.

Stephanie Neuts, one of the group’s organizers, is encouraged by the response she and 30 other volunteer signature gatherers received. She hopes the council will invite their group to a meeting to discuss their proposal and not try to get its shelter proposal approved before voters cast their ballots.

“I feel we had great success,” Neuts said. “I hope that the city does not approve the second letter of agreement with the developer until after the people have had their say. And the people include those who are homeless and those who are rehoused that are registered city voters who want to be heard.”

In addition to capping the size of new shelters, the proposal would remove requirements that shelters provide enough space to conduct security screenings, have clear sight lines to sleeping areas for administrative offices and that new shelters be located within a quarter mile of a public bus route. It would add a requirement that new shelters be open 24 hours a day and provide services either in person or through video conferencing.

The Portland City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the shelter referendum for July 19, but it’s likely that the council will send it out to voters rather than adopt the ordinance on their own, which they have the power to do.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who is filling in as mayor while Kate Snyder recovers from non-elective surgery, is not surprised the effort received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but he warned that citizen initiatives are not always the best way to set policy.

“Like most of these issues that go before voters, they’re complex and there are sometimes unintended consequences,” Mavodones said. “I think that’s something for the voters to pay attention to when it comes forward.”

The referendum is the latest wrinkle in a years-long effort to replace the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, an old three-story apartment building and auto garage in Bayside that was converted into a shelter and leased to the city. Traditionally, the shelter holds 154 single adults, who sleep on floor mats only inches from each other. But the capacity was cut in half during the pandemic, prompting the city, state and local nonprofits to open temporary shelters, including the use of hotels.

City officials say the existing shelter is outdated and unsafe for staff and clients alike. They’re hoping to build a 200-bed shelter at 654 Riverside St. that would include raised beds and storage lockers, plus onsite services, such as a soup kitchen, medical clinic and meeting space for onsite counseling.

Referendum proponents say the city should build a series of smaller shelters, rather than one large shelter, to better serve the city’s homeless community. But city officials have previously stated that the smaller shelter model would be too expensive for the city. The council in May selected the Portland-based Developers Collaborative to build the shelter and lease it back to the city. The project is estimated to cost roughly $20 million.

Councilors have indicated they will not allow any referendum to slow down their plans to build a new homeless services center in Riverside. Officials have outlined an admittedly aggressive timeline for getting the project approved by the planning board, a move that would insulate the project from any effort to derail it.

Although the referendum has a retroactive date of April 20, city attorneys have said that state law prohibits such retroactivity clauses from affecting projects that have received a land use approval 45 days before the ordinance takes effect.

City Attorney Danielle West said in a May 28 memo to councilors that there are questions about whether the retroactivity clause itself is valid.

“Regardless of whether the April effective date is valid, under state statute, it cannot act to reverse any final decision that is reached 45 days prior to passage,” West said. “Thus, any emergency shelter that receives conditional use approval at least 45 days before the vote on the referendum (if any) will not be impacted by that referendum.”

The city would likely need conditional use approval by mid-September to fall outside the 45-day window before the Nov. 2 election.

Snyder told the Press Herald last month that the city’s review of the shelter proposal should proceed on its normal course, since the referendum still needs to be approved by the voters.

“I don’t think there should be any slowing down or speeding up, regardless of whose process it is,” she said. “It has to be a fair process. I think we have to stay with the process and have it play out legitimately.”

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