South Portland planners voice fears about tar sands oil, but recommend against ordinance proposing to ban it

Posted Aug. 15, 2013, at 12:56 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Although they expressed disdain for bringing tar sands oil into the city, South Portland Planning Board members Tuesday said a proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

The 4-2 recommendation was forwarded to the City Council in advance of the final public hearing on the ordinance, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19, at Memorial Middle School on Ocean Street.

Board members Caroline Hendry and Sally Hasson opposed the nonbinding recommendation. Board member William Laidley was unable to attend the meeting.

Supporters of the proposed ordinance say it is designed only to block Canadian tar sands oil imports; foes claim it will destroy all petroleum-related waterfront businesses.

After almost four hours of public comment and board questions about the ordinance, planning board Chairwoman Molly Butler Bailey bluntly summed up her thoughts: “Tar sands scares the crap out of me. [But] the way it is worded, the lawyer in me is concerned.”

The planning board rejected Cape Elizabeth lawyer David Lourie’s argument the ordinance would not impede expansion of petroleum-based industries not seeking to import what he called “bituminous slurry” to the city.

“There are no real flaws in this ordinance that can’t be avoided through proper administration by the city staff,” Lourie said.

Bailey said she was undecided about consistency with the comprehensive plan until almost the last minute. But she was troubled by ordinance language banning expansion of petroleum-related industries as opposed to the comprehensive plan language, which supports marine- and petroleum-based industry development.

Larry Wilson, Portland Pipe Line Co. president and CEO, has said there are no current plans to reverse the flow of a 236-mile pipeline between South Portland and Montreal, allowing tar sands oil to be shipped and stored for export.

Lourie said the intent of the ordinance is to stop plans before they can be made and approved. He also said he is confident the ordinance, revised from one he wrote specifically banning tar sands imports, would withstand legal challenges because courts have a precedent of giving leeway to local interpretations of comprehensive plans.

Matt Manahan, representing Portland Pipe Line and other industry interests in the city, countered that the ordinance plainly contains language that will impede and eventually eliminate the petroleum industry in the city.

“Clearly it is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan,” Manahan said. “We are extremely troubled about the breadth of this ordinance.”

He said court challenges would be successful: “There has never been a case that has gone before the Maine supreme court as clear as this one.”

Planning board member Rob Schreiber said he, too, opposes importing tar sands oil. But he also opposes the scope of the ordinance, which was brought forward by a citizen initiative.

“I’m sorry,” Schreiber said. “This just doesn’t work for me.”

Board member Fred Hagan agreed.

“This is about tar sands, there is no doubt about it … I don’t see how remotely we are going to enforce it,” Hagan said. “It is a great idea, but I don’t think it is worded properly.”

After Monday’s public hearing councilors can enact the ordinance as written or send it to a voter referendum no later than 15 months after their decision. At a July 1 first reading, they indicated they would let the public decide.

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