South Portland used to be a working-class town. We weren’t trying to prove ourselves, we didn’t think we were better than others and we paid no attention to our wealthy “betters” in neighboring towns. South Portland had character because, unlike in other places, you could be yourself. There was a “live and let live” attitude.

Pedestrians walk the perimeter of Bug Light Park in South Portland. “My 28-year-old daughter once said it’s the ‘perfect’ place to grow up,” Jeanie DiBiase writes. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer, File

My husband and I both grew up in Portland and we used to say South Portland had the benefits of the city but the feeling of a town and was the ideal place to raise our four kids. We simply fell in love with everything about South Portland and the way the city was run. My 28-year-old daughter once said it’s the “perfect” place to grow up. You could cut a tree down, build a deck, have a barbecue and even rock some tunes. If someone was annoyed they would tell it to your face – not throw a bureaucracy at you and cover you in citations.

Now regular working South Portland folk can’t afford to live here, and we can’t just blame people from out of state. In the name of keeping things the same, we changed the way we did things and so we changed. We created committees for everything, and every committee came up with rules and ordinances telling someone else what they could and couldn’t do at their own home and in their yard. It was death by a thousand cuts, and instead of getting happier everyone got angrier. You can’t have harmony when one voice starts shouting everyone down unless they sing the same notes. We, unfortunately, are beginning to look and feel like Portland, not South Portland, and all the problems that come with a big city are now in our beautiful community.

What am I talking about? Everyone says we need affordable housing, but then a bunch of rules get passed that make it nearly impossible for the city to have affordable housing. An authority can get government money to build subsidized housing, but that doesn’t change the fact that we need affordable housing, and by that I mean housing that is actually affordable. In order to comply with all the new rules, regulations and ordinances in South Portland, you can’t build a home affordably, so the only housing that anyone can afford to build is more expensive.

And don’t get me started on how we treat businesses. If you are part of a business in South Portland but don’t live here, the City Council will essentially tell you they aren’t interested in what you have to say. Then folks wonder why their property taxes are going up 20 percent or more. It’s simple math – if you don’t support some kind of smart growth, then you need to either cut programs or raise taxes. We are, unfortunately, seeing both of these ugly things happening, and it won’t be long before the word is for locals: “Don’t buy property or open a business in that city.”

We can’t just blame the pandemic, either. This has been a long time coming. Staff in the Finance Department and Planning Department have left or are leaving, apparently tired of their expert advice being ignored. The city’s Economic Development Committee is ignored because they are singing the wrong tune when they offer alternatives to a new tree ordinance that the Press Herald says “would be the most restrictive in Maine and one of the toughest in the nation.”

The $10 million the city is receiving in pandemic aid from the federal government may help keep our taxes lower this year and next, but if we don’t get our financial house in order, then we are going to be in a lot of pain and South Portland will truly never be the same. If we want things to be like they used to be, then we need to do things like we used to do them – we need to listen to the hardworking people of South Portland.

Please don’t let our city lose its beauty, hardworking locals, businesses and affordability because this community has my pride and my heart and is my family’s home.

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