Sep. 14—The Portland Planning Board will hold a hearing Tuesday and possibly give final approval to a proposed homeless services center that would be built in the Riverton neighborhood.
Final approval of the proposed 200-bed shelter at 546 Riverside St. could derail a citizen referendum meant to halt the project, although project opponents say they are evaluating their legal options.
"It is truly unbelievable and unfortunate what City Hall will do to try to avoid the will of the voters," said Stephanie Neuts, a member of Safer Shelters for Portland, which opposes the city's plan. "However, it is not at all certain that corporation counsel's office has the law right regarding the timing of approval. If necessary, we are prepared to go to court. I truly hope that our city leaders learn to work with the residents of Portland rather than fighting us."
Safer Shelters for Portland is a neighborhood group that has hired an attorney to fight the shelter proposal. Some of its members, including Neuts, are part of a separate group, Smaller Shelters for Portland, which has pushed a citizen referendum to the November ballot aimed at blocking the city project by limiting the size of new shelters to only 50 beds.
Smaller Shelters for Portland believes voter approval of citizen initiative could block the city project because it would be retroactive to April. However, city attorneys have said state land-use laws prevent such retroactivity clauses from stopping projects that receive final approval at least 45 days before an ordinance goes into effect. City lawyers have said Planning Board approval would satisfy that requirement.
City attorneys originally said the ordinance, if voters approve it, would take effect 30 days after the election. But they have since adjusted that timeline and said the effective date would be on the day of the referendum vote, which would require the Planning Board to approve the project by Tuesday.
An attorney representing Safer Shelters for Portland previewed how the group might challenge the board's approval. Attorney Kristin Collins said the city's legal staff has a conflict of interest because it advises the Planning Board and represents the city, which is co-applicant on the project. And Neuts questioned whether the Planning Board's vote would constitute a final approval under state law.
"Corporation counsel has recently made the decision to engage an outside firm to advise the Planning Board in its review of the shelter application," Collins said. "This serves to highlight the fact that the office has felt it appropriate until now to engage with members of the Planning Board and members of planning staff behind the scenes regarding this application. This would be a clear conflict of interest that has prejudiced the review in the applicants' favor."
Planning Board Chairmen Brandon Mazer confirmed that outside counsel has been hired, but deferred other questions to city staff.
The board will meet in executive session to discuss its legal rights and responsibilities ahead of the public hearing. One board member, Bob Dunfey, has said publicly that he believes the city should not undermine the citizens initiative, and has expressed concerns that the city has a conflict of interest.
City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in an email that outside counsel is being brought in to avoid an appearance of a conflict "either on the part of individual Planning Board members or city attorneys." Grondin said the city has been careful to avoid a conflict of interest by hiring outside counsel to represent the city in contract and lease negotiations, insisting that the developer receive site plan approvals, and not advising city staff on the application.
"That separation from the applicant and the application, as well as the lease negotiations and drafting, is entirely consistent with applicable ethical rules as well as with the City's own internal policies and has been our practice for years," Grondin said.
She said outside counsel is being brought in "out of an abundance of caution" and in response to public concerns. She said the outside attorney will advise the board about bias, conflicts of interest and the application review.
"This will ensure that the Board will have the benefit of legal guidance as it undertakes its work and address any concerns or appearances of conflict of interest," she said.
Tuesday's vote culminates years of planning and groundwork to replace the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, which serves single adults in the Bayside neighborhood. The shelter is in an old apartment building and auto garage that has been converted. But over the years, demand has outpaced capacity and clients must access services, including meals, off-site.
The city wants to change that by building a nearly $20 million homeless services center — the upfront costs would be shouldered by the developer, Developers Collaborative, which would then lease the facility back to the city.
The new shelter would have roughly 200 raised beds — Oxford Street can accommodate 154 people sleeping on floor mats close to one another. It also would have amenities currently not available at Oxford Street, including a soup kitchen, medical clinic, a day room and meeting rooms so community service providers can meet confidentially with clients to address employment, housing, mental health or substance use issues.
The proposal has drawn opposition from area residents and activists who want the city to build a network of smaller shelters that they argue would better serve people experiencing homelessness, but the city and nonprofit groups say it would be too expensive to provide services that way.
Opponents have also criticized the site's remote location — near the Westbrook town line and far from the services downtown. However, the city is planning to run a 15-passenger van and provide discounted Metro bus fares and taxi vouchers as needed.
Kevin Bunker, of Developers Collaborative, said he's looking forward to Tuesday's hearing and hopes to have the new shelter ready for occupancy in late 2022.
"I am motivated to try to get to the finish line of this particular piece of it because I firmly believe this is a project that will make a meaningful positive difference in a lot of people's lives," Bunker said Monday. "Unfortunately that seems to be lost in a lot of the dialogue around the project now. But I am committed to re-focusing the discussion on the need to help those most vulnerable in our community, and help them now — not at some undetermined point in the future — as often as necessary."