Portland voters are being asked to approve a referendum question that could cripple future investment and tarnish the city’s reputation for welcoming new ideas. Question 2, the so-called “viewshed referendum,” places predictability and fairness on the back burner, and seeks to place current plans for developing the Portland waterfront there as well.
Scenic views are part of Portland’s and Maine’s allure. Protecting the views is something of a tradition here, but so is fair dealing and open-mindedness. The referendum would skew the playing field against those who are willing to partner with the city in revitalizing residential and commercial properties, discouraging the economic and social benefits that would come with those investments.
In fact, the risks inherent in passage of this measure are so significant for Portland, and so ill-advised as a precedent for the state as a whole, that GrowSmart Maine’s board voted unanimously to oppose Question 2, an act unprecedented in our history.
Why is that significant? GrowSmart Maine was founded to counteract irresponsible growth principles and sprawl in Maine. Our board includes conservationists as well as developers, planners, architects and environmental activists.
We are Portland residents as well as those living outside Maine’s Forest City. Over the years, we have been a leading voice advocating for programs and policies that ensure that Maine business and development activity is in the best traditions of our state while protecting our heritage, landscape and future.
Question 2 is counterproductive and sends the wrong message to the people who are willing to invest in our economic well-being and future.
The proposed new ordinance contains more than just its surface claim to protect view sheds in Portland.
It creates a new View Shed Task Force, appointed by the mayor, replicating work already underway through the citywide open space inventory and planning effort.
And it is not just redundant; it creates an additional time-consuming, unpredictable and costly barrier to development, with no guarantee of a fair or consistent outcome. The committee would first develop a list of viewsheds to be debated by city officials. Review of additional view sheds can be triggered by just 20 petitioners or even one “affected property” owner.
The retroactivity of this referendum is unacceptable, affecting a project already underway that has followed all the rules. A consistent process is essential for any investor, whether in development or land conservation.
The current Land for Maine’s Future debacle has thrown that program into chaos by changing rules and structure after the fact, causing long-standing public land acquisition agreements to fall apart. Adding a retroactive component to the proposed Portland ordinance is unacceptable for the same reason.
Finally, the charge that a developer produce specific, detailed plans at a very early stage in the process creates an economic barrier to any but the most basic proposals. It stifles innovation and legislates significant cost before the idea has been considered at the concept stage.
Unquestionably, the referendum effort targets the redevelopment of the Portland Co. site on Fore Street. What we see with the Portland Co. project is a creative and innovative development that would actually expand public access to the waterfront while protecting critical viewsheds as outlined in Portland’s current Master Plan.
There are certainly view shed ordinances that work–for example in Camden– but this is not one of them. It allows virtually anyone to stall projects that have already followed all the rules.
If passed, Question 2 would create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, imposing such subjective criteria that it would make developing and doing business in Portland too high-risk for most who want to engage in this city.
As Maine’s largest city, Portland’s action could set precedents for the entire state, with profound repercussions.
Please vote “No” on Question 2.
This op-ed originally ran in the Portland Press Herald on October 1.
For more information, visit growsmartmaine.org