Portland’s Planning Board gave final approval to a proposed homeless services center that would be built in the Riverton neighborhood.

The vote was 5-1, with Chairman Brandon Mazer and members Maggie Stanley, Sean Dundon, Austin Smith and Bob Dunfey voting in support of the site plan. Marpheen Chann, citing safety concerns, voted against the project.

Deliberations among board members on the project followed a 90-minute public hearing that involved about 30 speakers, who were divided on the merits of building a homeless shelter near Portland’s line with Westbrook and not in a more central location such as downtown Portland.

Opponents questioned the timing of Tuesday’s vote, expressing concern that approval of the proposed 208-bed homeless shelter at 638 Riverside St. could derail a citizen referendum meant to halt the project.

Safer Shelters for Portland and Smaller Shelters for Portland, project opponents, believe voter approval of a citizen initiative could block the city project because it would be retroactive to April. However, city attorneys have said state land-use laws prevent such retroactivity clauses from stopping projects that receive final approval at least 45 days before an ordinance goes into effect. City lawyers have said planning board approval would satisfy that requirement.

Safer Shelters for Portland Attorney Kristin Collins has said in the past that the city’s legal staff has a conflict of interest because it advises the planning board and represents the city, which is co-applicant on the project. As a result, attorney Durward Parkinson of Kennebunk was brought in Friday by the city to serve as the planning board’s legal counsel. Parkinson is not employed by the city.

Parkinson led a discussion prior to Tuesday’s evening public hearing about whether any board members had a bias against the project or a financial interest. Board members voted 4-2 to not meet in executive session and instead discussed legal issues in public. None of the disclosures made by members about potential conflicts resulted in a recusal. David Silk had recused himself from the discussion and vote regarding the proposed homeless shelter but did not explain why.

City planner Matthew Grooms presented the homeless services center proposal to the board. The project, which would be developed by Developers Collaborative, would encompass 29 acres of land abutting the Presumpscot River and conservation land off Riverside Street. The facility would feature three outdoor plazas, including a healing garden and bicycle pavilion. The shelter would offer separate sleeping quarters for men and women as well as a soup kitchen, medical clinic and meeting rooms.

Supporters said the need for a new shelter to replace the outdated Oxford Street Shelter is urgent. They said that putting off a decision on the Riverside Street shelter could potentially delay the issue for another five to 10 years. Portland identified the Riverside Street property as being suited for a homeless services center in 2019.

Opponents said the proposed shelter will be too big and too far from social service programs in Portland’s downtown area.

Joe McNally, director of Milestone’s Homeless Services program, urged the planning board to approve the project’s site plan and conditional use permit application. Milestone serves individuals with substance use and behavioral health issues.

“This is long overdue. I’ve worked at the Oxford Street shelter and the staff and clients deserve better,” McNally said. “We are talking about human lives here. They are our sons and our daughters. They deserve our compassion and our sympathy.”

Ten legislators who represent the Greater Portland Region presented a letter Tuesday evening to the board stating their opposition to the emergency shelter on Riverside Street. Among the signers was Rep. Michael Brennan, Portland’s former mayor. The legislators said Portland’s model does not align with the state’s plan for homeless shelters, whose goal is to decrease the number of emergency shelter beds in Maine.

“This location presents significant barriers given its remote industrial location and distance to core public health services located on the peninsula,” legislators wrote. “We ask you to deny this application as not meeting the standards set forth in Portland’s City Code. This proposed shelter is the wrong approach in the wrong location.”

Ken Capron, a Portland resident, said the city should act to approve the homeless services center now.

“There are no other alternatives and if the (citizen) referendum passes then we are stuck with Oxford Street for the next five to eight years,” Capron said. “We need to get help for the homeless now. Whatever we build is going to be better than what we have now.”

Stephanie Neuts, who lives in the Riverton neighborhood and works in a hospital with the homeless, said she supports a homeless shelter, but not one as big as proposed. Neuts said a 125-bed shelter makes more sense, especially for the homeless people, who are forced to use it and are concerned about COVID-19 spreading in such a densely populated space.

“There is not one homeless person who tells me that they are looking forward to a 208-bed shelter,” Neuts said. “They are afraid of a 208-bed shelter. It’s the wrong thing. It’s the wrong decision.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.