PORTLAND — In 1993, when the city created rules that banned condominiums and most other non-marine uses from its piers, the waterfront economy was much different from today’s.

Back then, Portland was an important fishing hub, home to a fleet of more than 50 groundfishing boats.

Today, only handful of boats remain. The city-owned Portland Fish Exchange, which in the early 1990s handled about 30 million pounds of fish a year, last year took in a record low of 6.4 million pounds.

Economic activity has declined so much, some say, that’s it’s time to relax Portland’s waterfront zoning so property owners can have other sources of income.

But others say that fishing and other marine industries will rebound eventually, and that the city must protect their access to the city’s deep and protected harbor.

The conflict has been simmering for years. Attempts to revamp the zoning have been met with resistance, so only modest changes have been made.

A group of waterfront property owners is trying again. The group has worked with the city’s planning staff to develop a proposal to allow more non-marine development on the piers and turn the area into a new redevelopment district.

The proposal has prompted the city to schedule two forums this week.

The first forum, tonight, will focus on economic conditions. The second forum, on Wednesday, will outline potential zoning changes. Both forums are scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall at City Hall.

In the early 1990s, Dick Ingalls was co-chair of the Waterfront Alliance, which wrote the zoning for the waterfront. Now, he is working with the pier owners on the new zoning proposal.

“The times are changing,” he said. “There isn’t a marine fishery left in Portland to pay for the infrastructure upkeep.”

But Anne Pringle, who was co-chair of the Waterfront Alliance in the mid-1990s, said she doubts the proposed changes would generate enough new investment to pay for pier improvements. For the most part, she said, the vacancy rate in the area isn’t much worse than in the rest of the city.

She said city officials should approach the issue with caution.

“Once the zoning changes and you have unintended results,” she said, “there is no going back.”

The area between the Maine State Pier and the International Marine Terminal — the central waterfront zone — has 50 acres that can be developed. Under the current zoning, the ground floors of buildings in the area must be entirely for marine use, and the berthing space can be used only for commercial vessels.

The proposed changes would allow as much as half of a building’s ground floor space to be for non-marine uses, and as much as half of the berthing space to be used for recreational boats.

It also would remove requirements that pier owners provide parking space on the piers for new developments and businesses.

The existing ban on hotels and condominiums would stand.

The city’s protected, deep-water harbor is an economic engine, and access to it must be preserved, said San Juan “Sandy” Dunbar, a retired harbor pilot who piloted nearly 12,000 vessels into Portland Harbor during his 40-year career.

He said Portland is one of the few places on the Maine coast that has deep-water access, and the kind of commercial development that can occur anywhere else shouldn’t be allowed to block access to the harbor.

“That is part of our heritage,” he said. “I would feel bad if would slip away.”

Charlie Poole, whose family owns Union Wharf, said he simply wants more flexibility when he looks for new tenants.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said. “The real mission here is to keep a working waterfront. But we need a little help.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com