Despite Portland Planning Board approval, opponents still hope to block Riverside shelter

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Opponents of the recently approved homeless shelter and service center on Riverside Street still believe they can block the project and are not ruling out a lawsuit against the city.

Former City Councilor Kim Cook, one of the organizers of Smaller Shelters for Portland, said her group disagrees with Portland’s argument that the Planning Board’s Sept. 14 approval of a site plan for the more-than-200-bed shelter will exempt the project from restrictions that would take effect if voters approve a November referendum backed by Smaller Shelters.

Former Portland City Councilor Kim Cook is now one of the leaders of Smaller Shelters for Portland, the coalition behind a referendum that would limit the size of new homeless shelters in the city.

“If somehow the City Council, who are the decision-makers, if they choose to ignore the will of the voters and try to move forward with this 208-bed mega-shelter, then I would fully expect there to be a legal challenge,” Cook said.

But first, she said, it’s important to see what voters decide about the referendum that would, among other things, limit new shelters to no more than 50 beds.

“We are very optimistic and have been since the spring when we were gathering signatures,” Cook said. “We had a very positive response from voters when we were out collecting signatures, even at the polls in June. We had probably one out of six people stop and sign (at the June polls), so that’s a very strong indication that people are interested in this issue and the voters should be deciding this issue, and the city’s plan to put a 208-bed mega-shelter on the edge of town is the wrong approach and the wrong location.”

She also said there is an argument to be made that the Sept. 14 vote by the Planning Board isn’t truly final, since the approval included conditions.

“There are conditions that need to be met,” Cook said. “The statute they’ve referenced includes all sorts of land use permits and building permits. I think at the end of the day it is not settled law what final approval means. … We would hope elected officials will not use taxpayer money to try to contend (the project is exempt) if the will of the voters is smaller shelters.”

The shelter, which would replace the existing Oxford Street Shelter and provide an array of services to clients, would be built by Developers Collaborative in a land lease agreement with the city.

In addition to the Smaller Shelter initiative, a group of local legislators signed a letter to the Planning Board opposing the city’s plan. Spearheaded by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, who signed the original petition to begin the Smaller Shelters ballot process, the letter was also signed by former Mayor and state Rep. Michael Brennan, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and other local legislators.

Lookner told the Planning Board the Riverside location presents “significant barriers” to the clients who would use it, given its remote and industrial park nature. He also said there is concern about the “expedited and unprecedented speed” the city employed to have the proposal approved.

“This proposed shelter is the wrong approach in the wrong location,” Lookner said.  

During the Sept. 14 meeting, Planning Board members were supposed to hold an executive session to discuss any conflicts of interest or biases they may have. But after member Robert Dunfey suggested some members of the board did have conflicts because of the city’s interest in the project, the board voted to hold that discussion publicly.

Ultimately, the vote for the project was 5-1, with only board member Marpheen Chann opposed. Dunfey voted against several conditional uses, but with the majority to approve the site plan.

Representatives from Milestone Recovery, Community Housing of Maine, Spurwink, and other organizations supported the city’s desire to build the large shelter.

Edited Sept. 27, 2021, to correct Planning Board member Robert Dunfey’s vote.

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