Portland council OKs 1st phase of new land-use code

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After an eight-hour meeting, city councilors approved the first phase of a long-planned overhaul to the city’s land-use codes.

Councilors spent the majority of the regular remote meeting on the first phase of the so-called Recode, a process lengthened by technical difficulties with the Zoom feed and by seven proposed amendments to the plan, often with amendments to the amendments, mostly for technical clarifications.

Eventually, they unanimously approved the first phase. But they did not approve all the amendments and at times bifurcated the amendments to approve or reject specific elements within them.

Mayor Kate Snyder, top center, has the floor during the Portland City Council’s eight-hour remote meeting on Monday, Nov. 9. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Nell Donaldson, director of special projects for the city’s Planning and Transportation Division, told the council that the city’s current land-use rules are contained in a 1,000-page document that hadn’t been updated in about half a century.

Donaldson said most of the first phase of Recode was about updating the language within the code and making it more user friendly. He said it was “largely an organizational effort,” but was key to starting the next phase.

“The result is an easier-to-use and easier-to-administrate document,” Donaldson said.

Although the first phase was largely about organization, there are some components that will govern future land use, including policies to allow more accessory dwelling units on residential properties and off-street parking.

Most of the discussion was on two amendments proposed by Councilors Belinda Ray and Kim Cook, who sought to add further clarifications to the ADU and parking policies. Part of the second amendment, which would have allowed development on private property, raised concerns about using publicly available parking to satisfy private parking requirements.

“A developer can’t rely on using city-owned land for that,” Thompson said.

Ray said the goal of these two amendments, specifically the one about ADUs, was to make it easier for city residents who wanted to build on their land.

“We wanted to make sure we are not preventing the development of housing,” she said.

Accessory dwelling units, which are frequently seen as in-law or above-garage apartments, are secondary housing units built on a single-family residential lot. The council decided to bifurcate the ADU amendment, but both portions ultimately were approved.

The second amendment, regarding parking requirements, was also optioned to be bifurcated. Councilor Nick Mavodones said he had concerns with the amendment because in the past allowing a development to use publicly available parking to satisfy parking needs would upset residents.

Ultimately the council approved most of that amendment but shot down the off-site parking allowance.

Another amendment had to do with setbacks for ADUs, but councilors wanted more time to discuss it and it was defeated 7-2, with Cook and Councilor Pious Ali in favor.

An amendment regarding short-term rentals, that would have mimicked language used on Peaks Island to limit “boom-and-bust” seasonal populations, was also defeated 7-2, with Cook and Councilor Jill Duson in the minority.

Two staff amendments were unanimously approved without much discussion, although at several points it became clear councilors were getting frustrated and were concerned about how long the meeting was shaping up to be. Mavodones at one point suggested they should reject any remaining amendments and take them back up again in Phase 2.

City staff will now begin preparing the second phase for public comment and consideration by the council.

Council extends manager’s contract

Portland city councilors on Monday unanimously approved a one-year extension of City Manager Jon Jennings’ contract.

The action gives them breathing room to conduct a search for his replacement.

Mayor Kate Snyder said when she came into office last year, she knew the city had not recently reviewed Jennings, the city clerk, and corporation counsel. Snyder said councilors started planning those job evaluations in February and were set to begin them in March when the coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings

Jennings, who was hired in 2015 and had not had a review since November 2017, eventually had two review sessions in October.

“It’s a priority, and we want to get it done, it’s the right thing to do for staff,” Snyder said.

Snyder said despite reports to the contrary, Jennings’ base salary will not increase with this extension. However, she said his “overall compensation package” would grow.

According to his contract, which was set to expire in July 2021, Jennings’ annual salary is nearly $170,000. However, he is in line for a bonus of more than $21,000 on the condition he satisfies all the obligations of his agreement with the city. The bonus would be paid within 45 days after he leaves the position.

The bonus represents the sum of 3 percent of his first-year salary, 4 percent of the second year, and 5 percent of the third year.

Snyder said the one-year extension was preferred by Jennings over a new three-year contract.

The only public comment was from frequent council critic George Rheault. He said there was “deep unease” that the most powerful person in Portland was reviewed behind closed doors, and compared the city giving Jennings a bonus to a “hostage situation.”

“You guys are digging a deeper hole here,” Rheault said.

Councilors unanimously supported the decision. Some also spoke favorably about Snyder, contrasting her performance as mayor to former Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Councilor Belinda Ray said it was “refreshing” to have a mayor who understood their job description and wanted to perform these reviews.

“These reviews had not been taking place,” Ray said.

Councilors Nick Mavodones and Jill Duson each took moments to praise Jennings’ performance as city manager.

“This manager has lived up to the clear performance expectations in his contract,” Duson said. “This manager has followed the policy decisions of the council.”

— Colin Ellis

Homes along Vesper Street in Portland would be included in a proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Council makes quick work of Munjoy Hill Historic District discussion 

In the first portion of a marathon meeting on Monday, the Portland City Council held its first and probably only workshop on a plan to create a historic district in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood.

The contested plan, several years in the making, was narrowly recommended to the council by the Planning Board on 4-3 vote. The Planning Board first took up the item last November, although city planning staff had been considering the designation for the East End neighborhood since 2017.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, told councilors the neighborhood meets the threshold for receiving this designation because of its history as a working-class neighborhood that was the most racially and ethnically diverse in the city.

“It tells the story of working-class and immigrant families,” Andrews said. “The designation is intended to celebrate and recognize that history.”

But Munjoy Hill and the East End are now hardly associated with working-class families. It has some of the most expensive real estate and housing costs in the city.

Andrews said most of the housing being considered as part of the district, about 430 properties, was built during a 75-year period. Development increased following the fire of 1866, she said, because 10,000 displaced residents needed a place to go. Following that people began to recognize the extraordinary views that area permitted, Andrews said, which led to even more growth.

In addition to the properties within the district, Andrews said there are six properties not within the contiguous proposal that the city hopes to designate as landmarks.

Andrews said while there is an existing Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District with similarities, this proposal has the support of both the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board.

She said the overlay district has a delay provision for demolitions, but does not prevent demolition. In the historic district, she said buildings are assigned designations, such as contributing and non-contributing, and the process for demolishing them is different.

“If the historic structures that populate the area lend character to the neighborhood, it’s only appropriate those buildings are stewarded over time,” Andrews said.

She also said the assumption that buildings in a historic district can’t accommodate additions is inaccurate; rather, new construction is reviewed under historic designation guidelines.

With only an hour allotted for the workshop, Andrews had to cut her presentation short to allow councilors to begin asking questions ahead of their regular business meeting.

In response to a question from Councilor Tae Chong, Christine Grimando, the director of planning and urban development, said it’s not necessarily true that a historic district impacts property valuations.

Grimando also said a historic district doesn’t necessarily prohibit affordable housing projects, although it can lead to less demolition and new construction.

While councilors indicated they would like a second workshop, Mayor Kate Snyder said that seems unlikely since they are slated to take the item up on Nov. 16 and would not be able to schedule another workshop before that meeting. 

— Colin Ellis