SOUTH PORTLAND — Political unrest is mounting in South Portland, where some residents say an increasingly progressive City Council is ignoring the city’s working-class roots and leaving more moderate and conservative residents in the lurch.

Discord has intensified in recent weeks, fueled by a long-delayed citywide property revaluation and a pandemic-driven home-buying spree that sent residential tax bills skyrocketing and tightened an already exclusive housing market. Frustrated residents say they see a seven-member council that is unrelenting in its pursuit of costly progressive goals – especially related to environmental protection and climate action – at a time when cash-strapped taxpayers fear they may have to leave the city.

While many support the council’s progressive agenda, critics say South Portland is becoming too restrictive and left-leaning in its politics, in part because newcomers have shifted the city’s demographics in recent years. They say few people feel comfortable voicing opposition at public meetings, especially if their opinions likely won’t make a difference.

Longtime South Portland resident Jeanie DiBiase says middle class, moderate and conservative voices are being squelched in city politics. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“People feel like they’re gonna be run out or called names,” said Jeanie DiBiase, an insurance underwriter who has lived in South Portland for 29 years. “With more rich people moving in, especially from out of state, poorer families and the elderly aren’t going to be able to live here anymore. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you want our city to be affordable to the working middle class.”

The council is raising hackles with two proposals in particular: one is a tree protection ordinance that would be the most restrictive in Maine and require the city to hire additional staff to enforce it; the other is a $4.5 million bond issue on the November ballot that would be used to buy open space. Critics note that South Portland already has plenty of trees, here in the most forested state, and it already owns or manages 375 acres of parkland, far exceeding the national average of 245 acres among cities its size, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.

Both proposals come as the council aims to address a crying need for affordable housing in a city where two-bedroom apartments now rent for more than $2,000 a month and buying a house for under $300,000 counts as a miracle.

Given the lack of developable land in Maine’s fourth-largest city, some question the logic of passing a tree ordinance that would make it more costly and difficult to build new housing, or borrowing millions to expand the city’s roster of open space rather than let available land be developed for housing.

Donald Ladd was the only resident who questioned the council’s cross purposes during a Zoom meeting last week, when its members unanimously agreed to put the $4.5 million open space referendum on the November ballot. No residents and only a few councilors spoke in favor of the bond issue.

Donald Ladd, a longtime South Portland resident, says the City Council is being reckless is pursuing a costly environmental agenda at a time when cash-strapped taxpayers fear they may have to leave the city. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I just don’t understand the council’s reasoning,” said Ladd, a former finance executive who teaches government and management accounting at the University of Southern Maine. “They say they want more housing, but they’re doing everything they can to prevent it.”

Ladd has lived in South Portland for 37 years and also owns a four-unit apartment building. He and DiBiase say the lack of moderate or conservative voices on the council is leading the city in an unhealthy direction.

Both say they aren’t concerned about the council’s social agenda, which has included painting rainbow crosswalks for Pride Month and creating a human rights commission in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“But when their decisions start affecting taxpayers’ wallets, people are going to start questioning things,” Ladd said.

While city elections are nonpartisan, it has been several years since a Republican was elected to the council and current members openly espouse progressive or liberal political views. Democrats have dominated in South Portland for decades, but moderate and conservative perspectives were common on the council in the past, regardless of party affiliation.

“You could go to a meeting and feel you were heard,” DiBiase said. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Increasingly partisan politics at the national level seem to have silenced some residents of South Portland, where registered voters break down as 11,195 Democrats, 3,649 Republicans, 6,218 unenrolled and 856 Green Independents. In last year’s presidential election, the vote was 12,075 for Joe Biden and 3,783 for Donald Trump, but noticeably few residents put out lawn signs for the incumbent.

Known for its working waterfront, where Liberty ships were built during World War II, South Portland has long benefited from a strong commercial-industrial job market and tax base. That has shifted in recent years, with online shopping chipping away at the Maine Mall retail area and the city taking aim at petroleum interests with its Clear Skies Ordinance and other restrictions. Newcomers brought greater racial and socioeconomic diversity, pushing the median annual household income from $51,066 to $69,290 in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census.

South Portland’s 25,500 residents also have become significantly more educated and professionally employed. The population with a bachelor’s degree or higher has more than doubled, from 21.4 percent in 1990 to 45.7 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, the population with management and other professional jobs also more than doubled, from 26.2 percent to 57 percent in the same period, increasing 15 percentage points since 2015 alone.

While some residents might be unaware of the city’s changing demographics, the first citywide property revaluation in 15 years got most people’s attention. The average single-family home value increased $83,800, or 41 percent, from $203,800 to $287,600, while the average commercial property value increased 27 percent, according to city officials.

As a result, the average residential tax bill increased 18 to 20 percent, or $203 per year, even as the tax rate dropped from $19.75 to $14.70 per $1,000 of assessed property value. But homeowners in neighborhoods near the waterfront saw their tax bills increase close to 30 percent or more. Now, even people who don’t often pay much attention to what happens at City Hall are expecting more careful spending and greater accountability.

Mary Cobb experienced sticker shock when the assessed value of her four-bedroom colonial in the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood jumped from $284,300 to $402,000, and her annual tax bill increased $421, or 8.2 percent, to $5,542. A human resources administrator who grew up in South Portland, Cobb worries that she can no longer afford to live in the city.

But Cobb is more troubled that her adult children and other family members can’t afford to rent or buy homes here, either. Her daughter and grandchild live with her because they can’t afford to live elsewhere. Her son and his wife, who have three children, are virtually trapped in a two-bedroom home in the Cash Corner neighborhood because they can’t find an affordable four-bedroom house anywhere in Greater Portland. They were excited when they found a house they liked in Pownal, a rural community about 25 miles north of South Portland, then they learned it already had 40 offers.

“So they never even got a chance to look at it,” Cobb said. “Their house appraised for a lot more than they paid for it, but they still can’t afford to move. They didn’t even bother to look in South Portland, which makes me so sad. The prices are so inflated because people coming from other states don’t think $600,000 is a lot for a house. At some point it’s just going to crash, or I may have to sell my home, and that’s scary because I don’t know where I’d go.”

Tim Manney, a woodworking tool maker, shares Cobb’s concerns, though he and his wife aren’t worried about covering the tax increase on their home in the Ferry Village neighborhood.

“I’m generally supportive of the things the council does, but we’re feeling the development pressure all around us,” Manney said. “It feels like every little open space around us has had a surveyor on it. Several homes in our neighborhood have sold in the last year and taxes are going up, but that’s mostly because of the housing market and the (state) constitution requires regular revaluations. But we do have a lot of concern for other people who may not be able to afford the increase and suddenly have to move.”

Roberta Zuckerman is a leader of Protect South Portland, a citizens group that has made headway on environmental issues in the city. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The council has its defenders, including Roberta Zuckerman, a leader of Protect South Portland, a local environmental group that campaigns against petroleum pollution and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. She’s a retired psychotherapist who moved from Portland to South Portland 13 years ago.

“I feel the council is doing an excellent job, especially on environmental issues,” Zuckerman said. “I’m not sure what to say if people are unhappy because (more conservative candidates) didn’t get elected to the council or they’re uncomfortable speaking out. But that’s what you have to do. And in my experience the council meetings require civility so everyone can be heard.”

Zuckerman said she understands that change is difficult, dealing with newcomers with different viewpoints is unsettling and the nature of politics today is extremely divided. “But being involved and talking with one another is important,” she said. “There may be some things we disagree on, but there are probably a lot of things we agree on, too.”

Aaron Filieo, a city native who is the head football coach at South Portland High School, agrees with Zuckerman on the need for people to speak up, especially since he teaches U.S. history and government to eighth-graders in Cape Elizabeth. Rather than retreat into a corner to complain with like-minded people, he believes citizens should strive to engage in respectful public discourse.

“That is the essence of democracy,” Filieo said. “But there’s a weird sense in the city now that wasn’t there when I was a kid. It feels fractured. It may be that what’s going on at the national level has trickled down, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Filieo said he noticed the political divide during recent discussions about the need for artificial turf on the football field. Some involved in the conversations have worried that it might not win council support given the city’s status as one of the “greenest” communities in Maine. It banned single-use plastic bags and plastic foam food containers years before state bans went into effect July 1.

“The fear is, the City Council is so extreme with its environmental agenda, it will be a no go,” Filieo said.

Mayor Misha Pride, who heads South Portland’s City Council, disputes the perception that councilors are lock-step in their approach to issues or unresponsive to residents’ concerns.. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mayor Misha Pride, who heads the council, also defends the work that he and his colleagues are doing and disputes the perception that the council is in lock-step in its approach to issues.

“I’m surrounded by strong, opinionated women and I think they are pretty diverse,” said Pride, a lawyer who is the only man on the council. “But I realize the optics scream super liberal.”

Pride said councilors support the proposed tree ordinance and the $4.5 million open space bond referendum because preserving trees and open space has been identified as a community goal to fight climate change.

“We don’t have a lot of open space left,” Pride said. “I think there’s a feeling that it’s precious and there won’t be any left. If the voters say no, the voters say no. The City Council isn’t deciding that.”

And the tree ordinance would be less restrictive than critics believe, Pride said, aiming to block developers from clear-cutting trees and give homeowners leeway to cut up to three protected trees in five years. He pointed to several recent council actions that responded directly to residents’ concerns, including the preservation of a prized neighborhood parcel known as “the piggery,” a temporary leash law in Hinckley Park to address a variety of problems, and the removal of existing homes from a costly new sprinkler ordinance proposal.

“Most of the decisions we’ve made have come from residents asking us to do something,” Pride said.

Pride said the council is more balanced and reasonable than it appears, as it tries to keep taxes down while meeting demand for a wide spectrum of community needs, including housing, business development, open space protection and overall sustainability. He noted that most councilors have full-time jobs and that serving on the council is a mostly voluntary position with a $3,000 annual stipend. He acknowledged, however, that some councilors are more committed than others to seeing things from different perspectives.

“But that’s not everybody’s thing,” Pride said. “We give residents plenty of opportunity to weigh in. We hear their voices and we give them their due.”

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