PORTLAND — Pierce Atwood’s plan to move its headquarters to a former cannery on Cumberland Wharf shows that the city’s waterfront zoning is working, say proponents of efforts to protect a working waterfront.

But some pier owners, who contend the rules are too restrictive, continue to push for changes to allow more nonmarine development.
Those changes are now being reviewed by the Planning Board, which will discuss them today. The City Council is expected to vote on the changes early this summer.

Under the current rules, offices are allowed on upper floors of buildings in the central waterfront zone, but the ground floors must be reserved for marine use.

Because the Pierce Atwood project would follow those rules, no zoning changes are needed for the project to go forward.

The project would preserve the dock space on the wharf for commercial fishing boats – another requirement of the current zoning.

“It’s an illustration that one can manage to have 100 percent marine use on the ground floor and have office uses above it,” said Barbara Vestal, who was involved in an effort in 2006 that made the zoning more flexible.

But a group of 11 pier owners says that more waterfront properties could be developed if the city would ease up on zoning restrictions a bit more.

Their proposal would allow nonmarine uses in as much as half of a building’s ground-floor space, and recreational boats in as much as half of the berthing space.

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

Steve DiMillo, whose family owns DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant, said Pierce Atwood’s move from One Monument Square is possible only because the city changed its waterfront zoning in 2006 to allow for office use on 100 percent of buildings’ upper floors. The previous rule required that marine use be maintained on 50 percent of the upper floors.

He said the Pierce Atwood project is a great example of how the city can attract development by easing its zoning restrictions.

He said the city should ease the restrictions more to encourage more development on other piers. He said pier owners need more income to pay for expensive maintenance.

Although Pierce Atwood doesn’t see the current zoning as an obstacle, most tenants and property owners lack the law firm’s financial resources, said Dick Ingalls, who is working with the pier owners on the new zoning proposal.

“We are not lawyers. We don’t do $500 million worth of business a year,” Ingalls said.

Dennis Keeler, a partner in Pierce Atwood who is in charge of facilities for the firm, said the zoning change in 2006 made the current project possible.

He said the firm considered moving to the waterfront before 2006 but dropped the idea because of the zoning.

The zoning allowed the City Council to override the restrictions by establishing a contract zone for a specific project. But Pierce Atwood didn’t want to get involved in a divisive political issue, Keeler said. “This time around, we are wiling to look and see if it makes sense.”

Because of the expense of the renovation, Pierce Atwood is seeking a $2.8 million tax break from the city. The council is expected to vote next month on the request.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be reached at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]