Banners hang in front of City Hall as protesters continue to camp in front of City Hall, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Results of a November ballot question in Portland could jeopardize the large homeless shelter planned for the Riverton neighborhood. Although permits from the planning board have been issued, an obscure statute might make them void.

At issue is the date of the approval. The planning board approved the permits at their Sept. 17 meeting. However, the written filing wasn’t made until Sept. 22. It’s that second date, argues Kristin M. Collins, the attorney representing the advocacy group Portlanders for Safer Shelters, that matters.

An obscure statute says that amendments to city code do not affect local ordinances and permits 45 days after they have passed. Opponents of the large homeless shelter proposed for Riverton are hoping this will make the permits issued by the planning board null.

Collins wrote in a letter to city staff on Thursday that a statute in the city’s land use code that states that “final approval” of a planning board decision includes “written findings of fact.”

“The City’s records show that the written decision memorializing the Planning Board’s action at its September 17 meeting was not issued until September 22,” Collins writes in the letter. “If passed, the citizen-initiated amendments must be applied to the proposed shelter, requiring its capacity to be reduced to 50 beds.”

Danielle West, the city’s top attorney, said in a statement that the city has not made a formal legal opinion about the date of the final approval.

“It is unfortunate that Attorney Collins and her client have opted to accuse the City of ‘voter suppression’ and attempted to bait the City into litigating what is fundamentally a legal question in the court of public opinion, rather than in a court of law,” said West, who will assume interim city manager duties on Nov. 2.

If the ballot result calls the planning board’s approval into question, the City trusts that the issue “will be ably resolved by a court of law in due course,” West said.

The advocacy group successfully collected signatures to get the referendum on the November ballot to restrict shelters to small sizes. If passed, it would amend city code to cap homeless shelters at 50 beds and require them to be open 24 hours a day, except for family and domestic abuse shelters. The amendment would also remove a requirement for shelters to provide security searches and on-site surveillance.

The proposed homeless shelter is slated to have 200-beds and cost up to $25 million. It’s being built by the Portland firm Developers Collective. The Portland firm was selected by the city last spring to spearhead the project, which includes a range of on-site services for unhoused people, including behavioral health, a soup kitchen and substance abuse counseling. They want to complete it by December 2022.

In the meantime, Collins wants the city to stop making the large shelter sound like a done deal. Collins asked city staff to “publicly correct past statements…that the citizens’ initiative cannot affect the proposed Riverton shelter.”

She also didn’t exclude the possibility of suing the city to ensure code is followed.

“No one, especially the unhoused, will be served by this project being tied up in litigation,” Collins wrote.