Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Urban conditional: Land Use: Coming to a Ballot Near You

Oct 17, 2017

Land Use: Coming to a Ballot Near You

by Zack Barowitz

You can’t fight City Hall, but you can make up a ballot referendum to throw a wrench into its works. That is the past, present and likely future history of how citizens deal with land use policies that that they do not like.

Residents might remember public votes on ordinances concerning Congress Square Park and the views from Munjoy Hill. This time around, residents will be voting on a contentious rent-regulation amendment (Question #1) and an anti-zone charge amendment (Question #2).

The question that is not on the ballot is why people are so pissed off. This comes down to a lack of political will to affect real change and the ability for some groups to engage in the process more effectively than others by virtue of having more time, money, knowledge, and resources to devote to the issue.

The coalition of landlords, developers, and realtors who oppose ballot Question 1 say the measure is poorly written and would limit supply, thus driving up costs. The group, named Say No to Rent Control has raised $172,000 to plead their case to the public.

Advocates of rent stabilization say rents are rising anyway and that smaller rent increases will have a negligible effect on landlord’s pocketbooks. And that the ordinance is designed to put more money in the hands of renters while building a more stable workforce. Given that city government prefers the free-market approach yet the majority of the population of Portland are renters, it is little surprise that the City Council Housing Committee tried to avoid the issue a much as possible.

In trying to thread the needle, the City Council’s Housing Committee set forth a series of measures to protect tenants, regulate Airbnbs, and facilitate projects by developers of affordable housing, all while trying not to upset neighbors — or markets. Although there is nothing bad about these policies — the effect is pretty lukewarm as they do not go far enough. Rent stabilization (along with deed restrictions, sale of city-owned land for affordable housing, land trusts, more aggressive zoning changes, etc.) was just one of many initiatives that have not been pursued. So a group of citizens wrote the amendment themselves.

We now have a brewing conflict between tenants and landlords with the city government looking on from the background and policy to be decided by popular vote.

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As described in the Press Herald, passage of Question 2 would:

“(P)revent a zone change from being enacted if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet sign a document opposing the change. However, a developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document in support within a 45-day period.”

Question Two reads like an NIMBY wet dream [NIMBY means Not In My Backyard, the rallying cry of the anti-development set]. The effort here is led by Mary Davis, who lives next to a planned redevelopment of the Camelot Farm site on Westbrook Street. The proposed development is a standard matrix of suburban single-family homes arrayed around an oblong driveway. The zone change enabled smaller lot sizes and additional housing units at a lower price point. Davis enlisted residents of the Stroudwater neighborhood who were still smarting over the rezoning of the Elks Lodge on outer Congress Street and the referendum was born. Davis is also part of group filing a lawsuit against the project.

The stretch of road contains several large parcels of pastoral landscape on the way from Stroudwater Village to downtown Westbrook. The area has been infilling with various non-agricultural uses: Westbrook Middle School, an ill-conceived industrial park, and now the proposed development.

Although supporters of the project point to 95 new housing units and preservation of roughly half of the site’s 45 acres; there’s not much to love about the project. Still, proponents of the referendum are playing a dangerous game by giving neighbors control of land use decisions. Given that the public is highly skeptical of any change or new development, one should expect a brave new world of signature gathering with every new project. This alone is likely to scare away a lot of future development. But speculation aside, it is designed to effectively (and retroactively) give neighbors veto power over a vast range of projects already in the works around the city including the Americold storage warehouse on West Commercial Street; affordable housing projects throughout the city; and the expansion of Maine Medical Center into its new Institutional Overlay Zone.

Public veto power comes at a heavy cost and just as the Planning Department is embarking upon a complete redo of the woefully out-of-date city zoning code. Improved zoning is necessary to address the dearth of housing, transportation, and neighborhood centers that is holding the city back.

Maybe a wrench in the works is too weak a metaphor; perhaps a hand grenade in a fish tank is more to the point.