PORTLAND, Maine — A fresh challenge to Portland’s plans for a waterfront storage facility raises the stakes of a referendum facing city voters this fall.
On Wednesday, opponents launched an eleventh-hour challenge to a City Council decision that allows for construction of a multimillion-dollar refrigerated storage facility. But that hinges on the November passage of a citizens’ initiative that gives neighbors veto power over nearby zoning changes, and may tie the fates of the two previously unconnected efforts.
During Wednesday night’s meeting, the City Council placed a citizen initiative on the fall ballot that, if approved, would allow Portlanders to block zoning changes if a quarter of the nearby property owners object. And that is what a group of West End residents opposed to the rezoning and 68-foot-tall freezer aim to do.
At the same meeting, city councilors voted to approve zoning changes that would permit the building of a large new refrigerated warehouse on the western waterfront property owned by the Maine Port Authority. That proposed facility, near the base of container shipping firm Eimskip, is lauded by business leaders and government officials as a key link between Maine food producers and international markets.
Hours before the council approved the zoning changes to allow for the freezer, however, opponents of the zoning changes sent the city a list of more than 100 signatures that could be used to retroactively reverse the council’s decision if the aforementioned neighborhood veto referendum is passed.
Those signatures are the latest pushback against a project that some residents feel will unnecessarily mar the face of Portland.
Members of the business community and government officials, however, contend the facility is vital to growing the state and local economy, and could now rally opposition against the proposed neighborhood veto ordinance because of its potential to unravel the cold storage plans.
“It’s a bit odd that a very small group of residents could overturn the vote of the democratically elected council,” said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority. “I would imagine there will be some legal challenge to that.”
Put forward by a group called Give Neighborhoods a Voice, the proposed ordinance would allow Portlanders to stop zoning changes by gathering signatures from 25 percent of the property owners who are registered voters and live within 500 feet of the site. This could be overridden if a proponent of the change got signatures from a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site within 45 days.
The rule would be retroactive to May 15, and Jo Coyne, a West End resident, said that the signatures she sent to the city should be enough to block the council’s decision.
“It’s going to ruin the waterfront for everyone,” Coyne, 75, said of the zoning change. “I would like for there to be no 75-foot buildings on the waterfront.”
All but one city councilor, however, felt that the potential economic boon from the rezoning outweighed concerns about building height.
The refrigerated storage facility is forecasted to bring more than 950 jobs to the Portland area and eventually generate an annual economic impact of $171 million, according to a report by state and local agencies. It is intended, in part, to serve shipping company Eimskip’s business in Portland, but would also provide vital storage and market access to Maine breweries, farmers and fisherman, proponents contend.
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, whose district includes the West End, was the sole council member to vote against the zoning change. But he nonetheless expressed concern at the idea that roughly 100 people might void the results of a lengthy public decisionmaking process.
“The project has to move forward and this is going to take us back to litigate the very thing that we’ve spent the last year and a half working on,” said Thibodeau. “The ability for that good work to be overturned is very concerning to me and feeds my general concern with the proposed citizens initiative.”