Portland’s proposal to build a new 208-bed homeless services center appears to be lined up for a Sept. 14 vote by the Planning Board, which could shield the project from a November referendum meant to derail it.

A citizen-initiated referendum proposal on the November ballot would, if passed, limit future shelters to 50 beds and effectively stop the project. But city attorneys have said that the referendum would not affect this project as long as it is approved at least 45 days before the election, which would be Sept. 14.

The timing of the Planning Board review and the city’s legal position continue to fuel concerns that the project has been fast-tracked, although city officials have denied it.

The Planning Board held a second workshop on the city’s proposal Tuesday and decided it was ready for a public hearing and vote, despite a list of details to be finalized at the final meeting. Although a date for that hearing and vote has not been set, it will likely appear on the board’s Sept. 14 agenda, according to Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director.

Some of the remaining details identified by the board include neighborhood outreach plans, aesthetic details of the building, perimeter fencing, safety of people using a nearby walking trail, possible encampments, wayfinding/signage, and transportation issues, according to board members and staff.

“The Board agreed it was ready for a public hearing, as it’s a short list of details to be finalized at this point,” Grimando said in an email. “Because the applicant does not have a lot of changes to turn around between the second workshop and the hearing, I anticipate it will be on for the September 14th meeting, but we won’t finalize the agenda until the legal ad goes out late next week.”

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The center, which will include a 24-hour shelter and other services, is planned for Riverside Street at the western edge of the city in the Riverton neighborhood. It is opposed by residents who led a petition drive to force the referendum.

Some residents and at least one Planning Board member have expressed concerns that the city is fast-tracking the approval in order to circumvent the referendum. City officials, however, have said the project is on its natural course, since housing is prioritized, and that the timing of each project review is different depending on complexity and responsiveness of the developer to requests for additional information.

The city’s original timeline for getting final approval and avoiding the impact of the referendum was mid-October, but it was moved up based on the legal opinion that approval after Sept. 14 would make it subject to the referendum. Even the mid-October timeframe was initially described as aggressive by city officials.

Planning Board member Bob Dunfey said in an email Wednesday that he believes the city has a conflict of interest when it comes to the project because the city is a co-applicant with the Developers Collaborative, which is paying to build the shelter and will lease it back to the city.

“I believe that it is a conflict of interest for the city which is a co-applicant of the 638 Riverside Street project to expedite the project in order to avoid the potential consequences of the referendum in November which is applicable to this project. I also believe it is unethical,” Dunfey said. “I seek to honor the over 1,500 residents of Portland who signed a petition to have a referendum regarding the size of homeless shelters. It is possible that as a planning board member that I may vote in favor of (the shelter). The applicant has done well answering questions by the board and the public.”

Dunfey and fellow Planning Board member Marpheen Chann called a vote on Tuesday to set the public hearing on Sept. 28, but the measure was defeated 4-2.

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Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer, who is running for an at-large seat on the City Council, said on Wednesday that the proposal to set the specific date was not in line with the normal agenda-setting process established by the board, which relies on professional city staff to determine when a project is ready to appear on an agenda.

“My time on the board that has never been done,” Mazer said. “We have always consulted on the agenda with staff, which is what our rules call for.”

Mazer said it would not be possible for him to attend regular status meetings with staff and developers to determine when an application is ready for a board agenda without it becoming a full-time job. That’s why the board needs to rely on the expert advice of city staff, he said.

Mazer pushed back on the conflict-of-interest charge. Although the city as a whole is listed as co-applicant, he said it’s really the city’s Health and Human Services Department that is the co-applicant on the project, not the Planning Department, which he said has scrutinized the proposal. He worried that some board members wanted to politicize the planning process and assert too much control over when projects appear on an agenda.

“From a political standpoint, I would have grave concerns about a chair who may take that power to the next level and either speed up or slow down projects, or try to pull favors for certain applicants,” Mazer said. “We’re not a political board. We’re not a policymaking board, unless requested by the council. The process has worked and the process is working. I don’t see it as a problem.”

Chann, however, said Wednesday that he sought to break from tradition and assert the board’s right to set its own agenda, because the city is a co-applicant and should be held to a higher standard in terms of process and quality of its proposal. He said there’s an appearance to the public that this project is being rushed, compared to others. And he did not think the applicant would be able to provide enough information about safety and transportation issues raised by members by the 14th.

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“I don’t really care about the referendum. For me, it’s about the process,” Chann said. “The process needs to be more transparent and a little bit more thoughtful, and we shouldn’t be deferring completely to staff for setting agenda items.”

Kimberly Cook, an attorney and former city councilor who has been helping advocates of the referendum, said the group hopes Mazer will allow the referendum process to play out. She suggested that the staff was exhibiting “undue influence” over the board, although board members have rebuffed those claims.

“We still hold out hope that the Planning Board Chair Mazer will not allow this project to be fast-tracked,” Cook said. “Because the public is not invited to the meetings of city staff and the Planning Board Chair, we will only know what he has decided once there is a public meeting notice issued.”

Cook said Portlanders for Safer Shelters, which is part of the coalition advocating for the smaller-shelter referendum, could take legal action if the board votes to approve the project on Sept. 14.

“Portlanders for Safer Shelters, which is a group of Riverton residents, has retained a lawyer and I would expect that they will evaluate their legal options with their attorney if and when the Planning Board votes on this project,” Cook said.

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