A view of the South Portland waterfront.
When it comes to zoning ordinances, even Natalie West, a retired attorney who specialized in land use, says the topic generally makes people's eyes glaze over. West represented local governments outside of Maine for 25 years before she and her husband moved to South Portland several years ago. And she helped write the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that will be considered by South Portland voters this November.
"It's an ordinance that was a response to the threat of tar sands, but it is a general ordinance that shapes the future of our community," West says, "and I think sometimes that gets overlooked by both the opponents and proponents of the ordinance."
At a news conference Wednesday morning, about two dozen supporters carrying signs that said "Protect South Portland From Tar Sands" and "Tar Sands Hurts Business" spoke out in favor of the ordinance. There is no current plan to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to South Portland. But some residents fear that the Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company's rumblings about that possibility, and past applications with the city and the state for that purpose, make it a real threat.
Barry Zuckerman is with the group "Protect South Portland." "And we all recognize that Big Oil does not care one whit about our children, our community, our land or our health," he said. "What do they care about? Profits!"
Zuckerman and others say the ordinance is needed in the event the pipeline company attempts to bring tar sands oil to South Portland, builds two 70-foot smokestacks on the pier near Bug Light Park and pumps toxic byproducts into the air. They say it will damage the beauty of the coastline, drive down real estate values and compromise public health.
Just across town, Roger Hale (right) takes a different view. Hale is in the business of handling freight from all over the country: fish products, container loads of bottled water and bio-fuel.
"I'm as far away from crude oil and tar sands as you can get. I don't have anything to do with them or that business, and this ordinance, although they tout it to be about tar sands, nothing in this ordinance says anything about tar sands," Hale says. "And what this ordinance is going to do is it's going to prevent us from doing our regular business."
Hale says that's because he and his attorneys have determined that if the Waterfront Protection Ordinance - or WPO - is approved, he won't be able to "repair, alter or improve" his pier. He's also worried that nearby terminals won't accept his bio-fuel.
Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the Working Waterfront Coalition says the problem is that the WPO also targets other petroleum and marine-related businesses that make up South Portland's waterfront.
"Our concern is that the WPO is very expansive, and the contraints would limit the ability of terminals in South Portland to react to changing market demands, to react to regulatory requirements," he says, "and it would cut off our connection to the energy markets of the world."
Attorney Natalie West maintains that the WPO is so narrowly crafted that it will have very little effect except on tar sands. She says current permitted uses on the waterfront aren't affected.
"The ordinance doesn't do anything to change them," West says. "The only thing it does is future enlargement or expansion of petroleum-related storage and pumping facilities, and all that, needs to take place set back from the water."
West says some of the wording of the ordinance has been taken out of context by opponents, and she says she's confident that once it passes those issues can be resolved.
But not according to Don Johnson, the president of Phoenix Welding. He wrote a letter to the city, saying three projects worth $1.5 million to his company and its partners have already been shut down because of the WPO.
Photos: Susan Sharon