Although the effort to create a historic district on Munjoy Hill has been underway for three years, Councilor Andrew Zarro has many questions that have not been asked previously he said this afternoon in a telephone interview.
That’s why Zarro, serving his first term on the Council, is asking the city’s planning office to answer them before a second final vote is taken by the Council on whether or not to approve the controversial historic designation for the east end of Portland. That vote could come on April 5th, if Zarro wins the support of his colleagues. Whether to follow that path will be decided on Monday, February 22nd.
Whether or not to designate the Hill as the 12th historic district in Portland has become a divisive matter for many. As with other subjects in the past, it has pitted neighbor against neighbor in a community that has had its share of controversy. Some Hill residents were intensely opposed to the narrow gauge railroad that was installed on the Hill waterfront in the early 90s. The mini-trains had been part of the Edaville Railroad, South Carver, Massachusetts. Many of the same opponents of change, aggressively opposed the on-going development of ten acres of property also on the Hill waterfront and currently known as Portland Foreside. Defenders of the status quo lost both extremely nasty battles – in large part because of their NIMBY strategies that lacked facts and were largely emotionally argued.
Zarro has asked the city’s planning office to answer multiple questions in time for the city council meeting on April 5th. The answers to those questions will go a long way in deciding whether Zarro maintains his opposition to the historic district designation that he supported on February 1, 2021. The vote, 5-4, against the designation came as a surprise to many because of the heavy lobbying by the pro-designation advocates. The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, Greater Portland Landmarks, and the Friends of Sumner Park were among those who supported the historic designation. Despite intense lobbying, Zarro insisted that he was not succumbing to those pressures. “I would never do that,” he said emphatically.
For example, Zarro would like to know how the historic designation affects the cost of housing for renters and homeowners. He would also like to know how many neighborhood meetings on the designation were held, and what percentage of the district did they represent. Another of his questions is: “What story are we telling and how did we get there?” in relation to a racial impact statement. Zarro said he received about 200 emails on the designation from Portland constituents. Some of his questions were inspired by emails from them. “My constituents had questions that needed to be answered. They deserved answers. They were good questions and I would like answers to them as well,” said Zarro. “It’s time.”
Zarro, whose educational background qualifies him best to serve on the city council than any of his counterparts, has a BS in Applied Economics and a Masters Degree in Public Administration. This background makes data collection an integral part of his decision making. “There is no shame in asking for more information,” he said. “If we need to spend a little longer on this, so be it.”
Zarro, a native Vermonter, who has lived in Portland for the past seven years, would like to hire a consultant to produce a report on the impact of the eleven districts already in existence in Portland. He said there is funding available for such studies, so money for such a report would not have to come out of the city’s tight budget.
The conscientious Zarro said he wants to do a good job and enact good public policy for his constituents and the city of Portland as a whole. He’s off to a good start.