Bridging the Divide in Portland

GrowSmart Maine’s summer 2016 Forum on improving Community Outreach between developers, the municipality, and the residents created solutions that begin with Portland but can work on improving conversations about growth all over Maine. These ideas were the consensus of the more than 125 people who attended the forum. See below for background on the event and the process that lead to this initiative.

Munjoy Hill Construction. Photo Credit: Corey Templeton

Solutions Identified at the Forum: These solutions are intended to provide more educated feedback, encourage interactions amongst a wider community, and discourage rogue opposition that is not particularly consistent with larger community needs.

  • An early public engagement process must take place for all major developments and proposed major changes in a municipal landscape
  • Diversify outreach approaches to include a broader set of voices
  • Create outreach materials to include education on government and development processes, understanding the context in which projects are developed (how will this development help the neighborhood?), and information on the economics of development so the community can understand what is reasonable to expect and when input is most valuable

Benefits of These Solutions

  • Higher credibility and trust for any municipal government that adopts the process
  • An educated resident base with more realistic and manageable expectations on growth
  • More diversity of input into planning and development
  • A common understanding around growth goals and community vision, providing residents with the knowledge to assess the concerns expressed by neighbors
  • Stronger and more cohesive neighborhoods
  • A growing core of interconnected grassroots community and neighborhood leaders who can help to disseminate information and provide guidance to each other
  • A smoother and more predictable planning and development process

To this end, three documents have been created and are available here in DRAFT form:

  1. Portland, Maine: A Citizen’s Guide to Commercial Development

  2. Best Practices for Holding a Successful Neighborhood Meeting

  3. The World of a Developer: Moving an Idea to Reality

 

If you have constructive feedback to improve these documents, please send us a message!

 

Project Background:

On June 9th, 2016, GrowSmart Maine hosted a Portland forum on public outreach to provide an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders to provide feedback on the challenges and opportunities for improvement in the public engagement portion of Portland’s permitting and planning processes. More than 125 people attended the event. It was understood that this feedback could also be used in other communities that are interested in fostering a fair, robust and transparent public feedback process.

There was strong consensus at the forum that more education and awareness of how the process works (both the developer process and the City of Portland process), clear information earlier in the process on the context of the development as well as the financial constraints and economics of development, and easier access to feedback opportunities for a broader constituency of city residents are all highly desirable. This was juxtaposed against an understanding that Portland’s resources are limited and it is the responsibility of the public as well as other stakeholders to make an effort to be informed..

Other consistent themes captured included a desire for all parties to be heard and understood, that relationships matter and build trust, and residents must understand the context of a project within the city and neighborhood vision in order to provide more relevant commentary. Potential solutions are to be implemented by developers, municipal government, neighborhood associations and other members of the public.

Following the forum, a smaller convening of panelists from the representative stakeholder groups met to help convert the input from June 9th into a set of feasible next steps for developers, municipal government, neighborhood associations, and other advocates. In more detail, the tasks include:

·      Creating simple educational materials on the development and planning process, first for Portland and subsequently provide templates for other communities. These include a concise version of City of Portland development process, a sample developer “decision matrix” to help the public understand the development process, and a best practices overview for developers on how to conduct a neighborhood meeting.

  • Work with Portland Neighborhood Associations, providing them with enhanced opportunities to reach out and educate their constituents on constructive advocacy. They can subsequently work with the City of Portland to implement other suggestions, including support of earlier communication to neighborhoods, expanding information available on development projects and making information more readily available via tweaks to the existing system.
  • Work with other organizations to reach underserved populations – including religious, social, educational and recreational groups – adapting materials to these specialized audiences.
  • Create a social media presence and proactive distribution of these materials via GrowSmart Maine.

The outcome, taken from the themes generated at the forum, is that a more educated populace, with an emphasis on effective, ongoing community engagement, will lead to predictable decision-making and strong development supported by a broad range of stakeholders.