Portland councilors reverse decision, OK Munjoy Hill Historic District

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The debate over a Munjoy Hill Historic District was resolved – again – Monday night when the Portland City Council reversed its previous decision and narrowly approved the proposal by a 5-4 vote. 

The council initially rejected the district, also by a 5-4 vote, on Feb. 1, but Councilor Andrew Zarro moved to reconsider on Feb. 22. His motion also passed 5-4; reconsideration was subsequently tabled until April 5, and then delayed until Monday night because of an internet service outage last week that prevented the council from conducting its remote meeting.

St. Lawrence Street is one of several Portland streets that will be part of the Munjoy Hill Historic District approved Monday, April 12, when the City Council reconsidered its previous decision to reject the district. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Zarro had initially voted against the district, but Monday night said he had changed his mind after obtaining additional information.

“Issues like this aren’t binary,” he said. “We must look at them with an open mind.”

Councilor Pious Ali, at the request of individual property owners, proposed half a dozen amendments that would have exempted specific homes from the district, but none of them were approved.

Most of the evening’s discussion wasn’t about the district itself, but rather the behavior of individuals on both sides of the debate.

Zarro said some individuals came to his business, the Little Woodfords coffee shop, and harassed his employees. Zarro said he was disappointed by the rude remarks his employees had to hear and expressed frustration about the contentiousness of the issue.

Additionally, Zarro and Councilor Belinda Ray faced suggestions that they recuse themselves from the vote because of perceived conflicts of interest. Zarro’s business is at the foot of Munjoy Hill, but not in the historic district.

The suggestion came in the form of a lengthy letter from former Portland resident Joey Brunelle, who claimed Ray’s employer would benefit from the creation of the historic district. Ray denied the accusation.

She and Zarro said they each had discussions with the city corporation counsel to ensure they didn’t have conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts.

Earlier in the meeting, City Manager Jon Jennings took aim at comments Brunelle made about his handling of city matters, specifically Brunelle’s accusation that Jennings made a unilateral decision to move the India Street Needle Exchange Program.

Jennings said he’s no longer going to keep quiet and “will be going back at people who accuse me of things not in my character.”

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau later said the council should also look into reprimanding and eliminating public speaking time for members of the public who make false accusations against councilors. He said it’s OK to disagree on an underlying issue like the historic district, but “impugning” the character of a councilor or harassing another councilor’s employees is unacceptable.

In addition to the vote on the Munjoy Hill designation, councilors also instructed city staff to study the impacts the city’s various historic districts have had on neighborhoods.

Staff discussion about the desire to formally protect the working-class history of Munjoy Hill dates back to 2017. The Planning Board narrowly approved the historic district last August, after the Board of Historic Preservation unanimously supported the designation, which includes approximately 430 structures built within a 75-year period.

The council was originally scheduled to vote on the district last November but postponed the decision to give newly elected Councilors Mark Dion, April Fournier, and Zarro time to familiarize themselves with the issue.

On Monday, Mayor Kate Snyder voted in the majority with Zarro, Ray, Dion, and Thibodeau.