Don’t wait until a controversial project comes along to decide which views are worth protecting, experts say

Pedestrians pass by a view of Portland Harbor on Fore Street in Portland in November, a day before voters decided the fate of a 'Scenic Views' ordinance. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Pedestrians pass by a view of Portland Harbor on Fore Street in Portland in November, a day before voters decided the fate of a ‘Scenic Views’ zoning proposal. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

There are 14 National Natural Landmarks in Maine, 10 recognized wildlife refuges, 267 miles of the Appalachian Trail, 12 designated state scenic viewpoints from public lands, 13 designated state scenic turnouts off highways and byways, more than 1,500 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 32 state parks and one national park.

Out of more than 2,400 great ponds in Maine, 346 are considered “outstanding or significant” enough under state law to receive extra consideration in terms of scenic protections, as are about 1,502 miles’ worth of the state’s nearly 32,000 miles of rivers and streams.

That’s a big list of stuff statewide considered — legally — so breathtaking developers can’t screw it up with new buildings or towers.

So if Mount Katahdin, for instance, isn’t seen prominently in the backdrop of that new project in town, no matter how ugly it is, you may have a hard time finding clear legal footing to oppose it.

“If you’re in opposition to a project, you shouldn’t look at [how it visually affects] your backyard,” said James Palmer, senior landscape architect with the Vermont-based T.J. Boyle Associates. “That has no standing.”

Palmer was one of three subject matter experts to gather in South Portland Thursday morning to deliver a presentation on the scientific and legal relationship between scenic viewsheds and development.

The other two speakers at the event, hosted by the Environment & Energy Technology Council of Maine (better known as E2Tech), were well-known Yarmouth landscape architect Terrance DeWan and Dawn Hallowell of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Palmer was primarily talking about the state-level review in that comment above.

Of course, local rules — which can add layers of design criteria and development expectations, and can also be legally ambiguous — still often provide cover for an opposition effort.

In Portland, this plays out time and time again.

A few examples come to mind. There was the 2007 proposal by developer Jeffrey N. Cohen to build a 12-story condominium building at 409 Cumberland Ave. That was opposed in the courts by the owners of the neighboring 15-story Back Bay Tower, in part, because the new structure would block views from some of their apartments.

A citizens’ group formed to oppose the massive Midtown project in the Bayside neighborhood, with the impact on the Portland city skyline being one of their stated reasons for doing so.

And perhaps most apropos to this discussion was Question 2 on last November’s city ballot, which sought to enact new rules preventing development of the historic Portland Co. complex in such a way that would infringe upon views of Portland Harbor from nearby Munjoy Hill homes and sidewalks.

“Whenever we talk about changes to the landscape, people get antsy,” DeWan said. “Who decides what that tipping point is? Somebody has to make that decision. Is it over the line? Is it approaching the line? Is it an acceptable impact?”

[MORE: How to understand the battles between developers and opponents in Portland]

In the frenetic environment of election season, Question 2 became for many voters a simple referendum on whether to restrict the redevelopment of the old industrial site.

But the question, if passed (it wasn’t), would also have demanded city leaders assess other scenic views around Portland and come up with a list of local vistas that would be forevermore protected from the intrusion of development.

Those who spoke in South Portland Thursday morning didn’t address the Portland Co. situation directly, but they said making such a list at the community level is a good idea.

They also said communities should not wait until a controversial project comes along to do so.

In Portland, so much of the discussion of protecting views has been reactionary. With that election season fervor — at least in terms of local issues — now passed, maybe it’s time to take up that effort.

Outside of the context of any particular project, decide once and for all which views will get protection under city zoning, and try to remove the guesswork, lawsuits and ballot boxes from the development equation moving forward.

“You have to write the laws before people propose projects,” Palmer said. “You have to take an inventory of scenic places ahead of time so nobody’s surprised.”

Would creating such an inventory prevent any future dispute over development in Portland? Certainly not.

There are still plenty of rules related to neighborhood character and scale that can be used to fuel debates on different projects.

Building a list of protected views would likely have to be one part of a larger discussion going on in the city regarding a revision of the comprehensive plan and related zoning ordinances.

But it would be an important part.

Landscape architect Terrance DeWan speaks at Calais High School in this 2007 BDN file photo.

Landscape architect Terrance DeWan speaks at Calais High School in this 2007 BDN file photo.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.