Maine developers seek ways to calm the neighbors about new projects

With growth often slowed by opposition, some of it NIMBYism, builders hope to head off resistance before it starts.

As head of a company that builds affordable housing, Dana Totman knows what it’s like to face neighborhood opposition to a proposed development.

Totman, president and CEO of Portland-based Avesta Housing, said a 2014 effort to build a senior housing project in Portland even resulted in threats to his family.

“One neighbor objected – viciously, vigorously,” Totman said. “He pointed out that he knew where my wife and I lived.”

Developers in Portland say that NIMBYism, the tendency of nearby residents to categorically reject any proposed development they deem unappealing, is a serious problem, especially in Portland.

However, some Portland residents who have led efforts against development in the past said the only thing they object to is city officials approving projects that don’t meet established planning and zoning standards.

A group of developers met this month in South Portland to discuss strategies for overcoming neighborhood opposition, which they said can stifle economic growth, drive up the cost of housing and promote racial and class segregation.

IMPROVING DEVELOPMENT’S IMAGE

The keynote speaker at the May 18 Maine Real Estate & Development Association conference was Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a Massachusetts-based leader in the YIMBY movement. While NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my back yard,” YIMBY stands for “yes in my back yard.”

Kanson-Benanav told the audience that local opposition to higher-density urban development such as apartments and townhouses can strangle local economies, and also has a history of being used as a tool to keep ethnic minorities and lower-income residents out of predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods.

He said the problem has reached a crisis point in the Boston area, where many of the workers needed to support a growing local economy are moving away because they can’t afford the cost of housing.

“Housing production is a prerequisite for economic growth,” Kanson-Benanav said. “We in the YIMBY movement are fighting for more housing in the Boston area.”

His words resonated with many developers in Maine, who said NIMBYism is a serious problem in the state.

Totman said local planning boards generally do an excellent job of examining the merits of a proposed housing project, and supporting or opposing it based on whether it meets the community’s needs. However, he said that when a project is required to go before a city or town council, politics take over, emotions flare and objectivity suffers.

“And that’s where NIMBYism starts,” he said.

Totman suggested that municipalities should adopt ordinances that minimize council involvement in housing projects. Those are the meetings in which negative sentiment toward growth and developers in general can derail a beneficial project, he said.

But Totman also placed the onus on developers to do a better job of demonstrating to the public why their projects are worth supporting. He noted that real estate professionals tend to be viewed by some as greedy, opportunistic “bloodsuckers.”

“We need to put the good back into real estate development,” he said. “We need to tell our story better.”

Jim Brady, developer of The Press Hotel and co-owner of the former Portland Co. complex on the city’s eastern waterfront, said municipalities can reduce the threat of NIMBYism by having a clear plan that specifies exactly what type of development should go where.

Brady said the 58 Fore Street project at the former Portland Co. site, which has been in the planning stage since 2013, would not have materialized without the confidence he and his fellow investors had in the city’s Eastern Waterfront Comprehensive Plan.

“Without predictability, our group never would have acquired the site,” he said.

The 10-acre project, which includes 600 units of multifamily housing, has met with opposition from some residents. A group called Save the Soul of Portland successfully placed a measure on the ballot that, if approved by voters, could have hobbled the project by designating the area as a protected site for scenic views. The measure ultimately failed by a vote of 63 percent to 37 percent.

Brady said it’s important for residents who support local development to attend public meetings and voice their support. Usually, it’s only the opponents who show up to speak, he said.

“The thing about NIMBYism is that it tends to be the voice of the minority,” he said.

BENDING RULES FOR DEVELOPERS

In 2015, Portland tried to bridge the gap between affordable and upscale housing by adopting a policy that requires larger developments to include units that are affordable to middle-income earners. The city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires 10 percent of the units in developments with 10 or more units to be affordable to middle-income earners, defined in 2015 as households earning between $46,280 and $55,536. Developers can avoid building those units by paying the city $100,000 for every non-affordable unit they build. That money goes into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to help build affordable housing.

But it isn’t just affordable housing that draws opposition.

Portland residents who have participated in campaigns against development projects said the city’s problem isn’t NIMBYism, and that few of the projects that have generated controversy in recent years involved affordable housing.

They said the problem is city officials trying to circumvent the public process in some cases, and being too eager to change established building height and site use restrictions to accommodate developers.

TYPE OF NEW HOUSING MATTERS

“I don’t think that the debate in Portland has focused much on NIMBYism in terms of not wanting affordable housing,” said Barbara Vestal, a former Portland Planning Board member who was involved with Save the Soul of Portland. “I think it’s kind of a simplistic way for developers to characterize it as NIMBYism.”

Vestal said Brady’s 58 Fore Street project, which she opposed in its current state, would not do anything to solve the city’s affordable housing problem.

“If you build high-end housing for people who are going to use it for seasonal purposes, that’s a lot different from building any type of worker housing,” she said. “You can’t just assume that more housing units produce more affordable housing.”

Vestal said the project’s proposed height should have triggered a public process to update the area’s comprehensive plan, but that city officials used a loose interpretation of the existing plan to avoid that process.

Karen Snyder, a Munjoy Hill property owner and landlord, said the majority of Portland residents are not anti-development. What they object to is that so many of the larger projects being approved involve a request to deviate from the city’s own rules.

“We just want the Portland Planning Department and Planning Board to actually enforce the current zoning ordinances without changing the ordinance language, or giving developers zoning height waivers, or giving (tax breaks) or discounted property to high-end developers without enforcing more affordable housing,” she said.

Snyder cited the proposed Americold Logistics LLC cold-storage facility on the city’s western waterfront as one case in which city officials appear eager to change the rules to cater to a developer. Americold is seeking to build a structure nearly 70 feet tall on property zoned for buildings no taller than 45 feet.

“The city of Portland Planning Department quickly changed the proposed height from 45 feet to 75 feet amidst protest of the West Enders,” she said. “Over 200 local residents signed a petition to resist this, but it appears the Portland city government is trying to ram this through even though there is a large and very organized resistance.”

Snyder said she was surprised and disappointed that Portland officials participated in a NIMBYism conference organized by a pro-development group. Snyder said she had been unaware of the conference and did not attend.

“This is a perfect example where the Portland Planning Department and Planning Board appear to be colluding with developers in off-site meetings to guide the developers on how to change or get around the zoning ordinances as quickly as they can before the local residents can organize to resist or even know about it,” she said.

BALANCING GROWTH AND CONCERNS

Portland Planning Director Jeff Levine, who was a panelist at the NIMBYism conference, said city officials participated because they were invited to do so, just as they have participated in meetings organized by neighborhood groups that oppose development.

Levine took issue with the assertion that Portland officials are biased toward developers.

“Developers would disagree with that,” he said. “They would say that we are too stringent in our enforcement of planning and zoning rules.”

Levine said the advice he gave to developers at the conference was to “reach out honestly and sincerely to your abutters” and listen to their concerns.

Thriving cities such as Portland all face challenges in balancing the demand for growth with the concerns of existing residents, he said. Portland’s goal, Levine said, is to ensure that people on all sides of a controversial development have an opportunity to be heard.

Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he doesn’t think it is fair to place all the blame on city officials for the level of animus at public meetings when a proposed development is on the agenda. Norris emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the organization.

Jay Norris stands near a new condo development on Munjoy Hill in Portland, where he lives. Norris thinks neighbor and developer collaboration can smooth the way for projects. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Some residents believe they are protecting the community by opposing all major development, he said, while others are worried about their taxes going up because of higher property value assessments.

What really seems to set people off is when they get the impression that a developer isn’t interested in hearing about or addressing their concerns, Norris said. On the other hand, he said, developers shouldn’t be expected to take their marching orders directly from local residents.

“I think both sides really honestly need to learn from each other,” he said.

Patrick Venne of Portland-based Redwood Development Consulting LLC stressed the importance of developers gathering input and support from neighborhood groups before a project is submitted for municipal approval. Sometimes all it takes is an open dialogue with local residents – and a willingness to make design changes based on their input – to turn a doomed project into a successful one, he said.

“They can say you have a right to build something, but whether or not you really do depends on whether you have support from the community,” Venne said. “If you can transform public input on the front end into a tangible unit, it will be worth its weight in gold.”

PROJECT DIALOGUE THAT SUCCEEDED

Anne Pringle, former Portland mayor and current president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, cited one recent example of a developer working successfully with neighborhood groups to reach a compromise.

Developer J.B. Brown & Sons sought a zoning change for a portion of its 3-acre property at 101 York St. to raise the height limit for a parking garage, but only after working closely with neighborhood groups. The neighborhood groups ultimately endorsed the change, which was approved in 2013.

“We worked something out that we can all live with,” Pringle said.

Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, said Portland is one area of the state in which the pressure to develop is so strong that many residents feel overwhelmed.

It’s a natural response for residents to push back and oppose development, she said, and developers that work closely with neighborhood groups before they submit their plans to the city have a much better chance of success.

Still, Smith said some of the problem can be chalked up to NIMBYism, and that there are cases in Portland and other Maine communities where it has played a role in the opposition to development.

“It’s based on their perception of who moves into affordable housing,” she said. “There is, for some people, a perception of people they wouldn’t want to hang out with.”

J. Craig Anderson

Portland Press Herald