Portland officials eye $18.5M plan to restore polluted Capisic Brook Watershed

Posted Aug. 14, 2012, at 7:37 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city officials are considering an $18.5 million plan to restore the Capisic Brook Watershed, where the water is polluted beyond state clean water thresholds.

But a few in the city have expressed concerns that including the strategy into Portland’s comprehensive plan, as a split planning board voted in favor of Tuesday night, would enshrine potentially burdensome new rules on property owners and developers.

“My hesitation is that there are a lot of things put in here as suggestions or guidance about changing our design standards,” said planning board member Timothy Dean, the lone dissenting vote on a shorthanded 3-1 board tally recommending the watershed plan to the City Council. “If we put them in the comprehensive plan, it does become a policy document, and some of these things, while they may be good to recommend, we may not want to make it policy to follow.

“You have a potential here where some of these restrictions could be costly … and could have the effect of restricting development in certain areas, such as out on Warren Avenue,” he continued.

The proposed plan includes a slate of recommended changes to city ordinances and design standards meant to reduce pollution into the 1,418-acre Capisic Brook watershed.

Among the recommendations included in the plan are: Requirements that redevelopment work on existing properties include stormwater quality management; an increase in the percentage of parking spaces in the city sized for compact cars; that new projects use loam or another more absorbent soil material while replacing soil dug up; that open drainage be permitted along Portland streets; and that the Stream Protection Zone be expanded to cover the areas around all tributaries to Capisic Brook.

The slate of recommendations aims to help the long-polluted Capisic Brook — which the state Department of Environmental Protection has designated as an urban-impaired watershed, failing to meet its minimum Class C water quality rating — overcome what city staff and consultants are calling an overabundance of impervious surface in the vicinity of the brook and its contributing streams.

According to a state evaluation cited in the Capisic Brook Watershed Management Plan, 29 percent of the acreage in the watershed is covered by impervious surfaces, while urban watersheds tend to reach “impaired” status around the 10 percent mark.

The high number of roofs, driveways, streets and parking lots — many of which can be found around the commercially developed Warren Avenue upstream of the brook — carry litter, pesticides, fuel and other automobile chemicals into the brook or streams feeding into it.

“We have several hundred acres more … of impervious surfaces than what the watershed can handle,” said Zach Henderson, a Woodard & Curran consultant working with the city on the watershed project.

The study that helped a city task force develop the watershed strategy was funded by an approximately $100,000 grant awarded as part of 2009’s federal stimulus package.

Covering the more than $18.5 million in costs to implement the plan — which calls for high-tech vacuum street sweeping, the use of more porous pavements and continued separation of sewer lines from easily overflowed stormwater pipes — may be more difficult to do, plan proponents acknowledged Tuesday.

Henderson, who was joined in advocacy for the plan by Portland Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky on Tuesday, said some of the costs could be covered from a recently approved stormwater fee, which charges property owners based on how much impervious surface exists on their lots, as well as fees incurred by developers in lieu of on-site stormwater management systems.

Ultimately, the Planning Board on Tuesday by a 3-1 vote recommended to the City Council that the strategy be added to the city’s comprehensive plan, with the condition that the watershed management plan be softened with language asking city leaders to “consider” the changes, rather than demanding them in places where the wording is stronger.

“When I read everything else, it’s clearly broad enough for the city to do what it needs to do in responding to these issues,” said Planning Board member David Silk. “I don’t read it as mandatory language.”

The council will consider the plan at a future meeting.

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