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May 19, 2017

Latest City Hall clash over Portland cold storage not yet the final chapter

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator, speaks to the Portland Planning Board during Thursday's public workshop on the proposed cold storage facility on the city's western waterfront.

Supporters and opponents of a proposed cold storage facility on Portland's western waterfront clashed at a public workshop Thursday night as city planning board members signaled that the discussion is far from over.

"We're not yet ready to go to a public hearing without another workshop," Planning Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Boepple said during the meeting.

The standing-room-only event at Portland's City Hall followed a site visit by some 50 people to the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street where the planned warehouse would be built.

Atlanta-based Americold Logistics LLC won the bid two and a half years ago to design and build the waterfront facility, pledging to invest up to $30 million. It currently operates a 65-year-old facility on Read Street in Portland.

The new warehouse can only be built if Portland City Council agrees to a zoning change to raise the height limit for buildings on the proposed site from 45 feet to 70 feet. Elsewhere on the western waterfront, the city is calling for an absolute height limit of 50 feet.

City and state officials used Thursday's meeting to make the case for the cold storage project, citing studies done since the last meeting, including an independent report by researchers at the University of Southern Maine putting the potential long-term economic impact at up to $900 million for the state.

That didn't change the minds of West End neighborhood residents skeptical about the project. Several urged the planning board to hold off on making its recommendation to the City Council.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association and a former Portland City Council member, suggested forming a working group to study the matter further, saying that "it's important to take the time to get it right."

Another resident, Jo Coyne, pleaded with planning board members to "please pay attention" to citizens' petitions, including one with 750 signatures so far that calls for keeping the height limit at 45 feet.

"Getting out there and actually talking to the people on the street is really eye-opening," Coyne said. "The word on the street as I see it … is that why do we even have zoning, because every time a developer comes along it just gets changed?"

Portland Fish Exchange President Tom Valleau spoke in favor of the zoning change. He said the fishing industry in Portland will benefit from the type of facility Americold is proposing — especially as it becomes increasingly dependent on frozen products from Europe and Asia.

The Fish Exchange "fully supports the Americold proposal," he said. "We see it as not only helping Portland but helping the fleet and helping our exchange accomplish the kinds of things the city wants us to accomplish."

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