Zoning Gone Wild in South Portland, Maine

Recently, the Portland Press Herald ran a kind of story that sends chills down the spines of every small business owner–Zoning Gone Wild.  The story–Food Market Flap Forces Closer Look at Local Ideals--chronicles the plight of a small food store that was to be called Ebo’s Market.

The scary part of the story is that they had already spent $55,000 working their way through the bureaucratic maze only to find themselves face-to-face with a petition calling for a moratorium on all new commercial development.  In an instant, their sizable investment went up in smoke.

Small businesses like this are the life-blood for towns across Northern New England.  These kind of arbitrary actions are a major discouragement to the risk-taking involved in starting a new business–as if there aren’t enough risks already.  Towns would be wise to have iron-clad zoning ordinances already in place, without the opportunity for surprises, in order to avoid this kind of economic disaster and bad publicity.

In a basement on Pillsbury Street at Willard Square, Glenn Perry and Ian Hayward sift through stacks of paperwork, spread out on long plastic tables.

Site plan drawings. Income projections. City regulations.

The business partners handle the papers quietly and carefully, with the grim look of mourners.

“We thought this was just the thing that would be embraced here. We were pretty jazzed,” said Perry on a rainy day last week, glancing up at a drawing of the planned Ebo’s Market, originally called “Mr. Delicious.”

Both are nicknames for Perry, a wine salesman and self-described foodie who has bounced around Portland’s food and beverage scene since the 1980s.

“We were wrong,” he said.

Since buying this property at Willard Square in November, Perry says he sank $55,000 into a site plan, designs and other preliminary work for the “dream” business he hoped to open with Hayward, a young cook whose father, Sam Hayward, is the celebrated chef at Fore Street in Portland’s Old Port.

Encouraged by the city’s planning office and zoning that calls for up to six more businesses at Willard Square, the partners envisioned a small market that would be built next to Perry’s two-story apartment house.

What they didn’t foresee was the opposition.

Several neighbors, concerned about the planned market’s impact on the square, said the area is already congested and dangerous. Perry and Hayward’s project, the neighbors objected, simply wasn’t a good fit.

They started a petition and lobbied the City Council to impose a building moratorium for the 12 properties that make up the village-commercial zone. Unanimously, the council passed a first reading of the moratorium May 16.

And just like that, Ebo’s was dead on arrival.

Ebo’s Market would have gone between these two buildings:

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