PORTLAND – City officials plan to move a lobster bait dealer away from the warehouse on the waterfront where Maine’s largest law firm plans to open its new headquarters.
Officials say Dropping Springs Bait, which signed a six-year lease with the city in April, is blocking emergency access to the building and must operate elsewhere on the city-owned Portland Fish Pier.
The City Council voted this month to give the warehouse’s owners a $2.8 million tax break to support the $12 million renovation project. Pierce Atwood will be the largest tenant when it moves next year into the building, which now houses Cumberland Cold Storage.
The project is considered a model for developing Portland’s waterfront in a way that allows traditional marine activities to co-exist with offices.
A “very innocent” miscommunication within city government allowed the bait company to set up at its current location on the pier without submitting a site plan for approval, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.
City planners are now reviewing the site plan, she said, and the issue of emergency access will be resolved by moving the bait company away from the warehouse and closer to the Portland Fish Exchange.
She said the city hasn’t received any complaints from Waterfront Maine, which owns the warehouse, or from Pierce Atwood, about noise and odor associated with fish bait operations.
Thomas Valleau, a member of the Portland Fish Exchange Board of Directors, said city officials told him that site plan review regulations are driving the issue.
It’s not about “helping lawyers,” he said. “It’s about complying with city planning regulations.”
But Mark Usinger, president of A.L. Griffin, a ship chandlery that rents space on Hobson’s Wharf, said he believes that Pierce Atwood executives simply don’t like the unsightly bait barrels, the odors and the noise made by four freezer trailers on the lot.
Rather than co-exist with industry on the working waterfront, he said, Pierce Atwood has told city officials to find a way to move the bait company.
“That’s why the fishermen are so nervous,” he said. “If you are going to come to this place, you have to accept this place for what it is. It’s a working waterfront.”
Pierce Atwood officials declined to comment.
Jeff Legere, operations manager for Dropping Springs, said that moving to another part of the pier wouldn’t pose a significant problem.
Dropping Springs is subleasing part of the pier from the Portland Fish Exchange for $40,000 a year. It is set up on a section of pavement known as the “net yard,” where groundfishermen lay out and mend their nets.
The net yard was empty until recently. The bait company has moved four freezer trailers to the site over the past few weeks, along with two forklifts and nearly 400 blue barrels. There’s also a hoist for moving salted herring onto lobster boats. The only structure is a standard backyard shed.
The trailers are the issue, Clegg said. Fish exchange officials identified them as “transient trailers,” she said, but city planners view them as permanent structures because the wheels were removed.
She said the trailers would block firetrucks from reaching the rear portion of the Cumberland Cold Storage building.
The bait company is now about 50 feet from the building. The two properties are separated by a guardrail and an unlocked gate.
The Portland Fish Exchange’s directors are scheduled to meet in closed session Thursday to discuss the lease terms with Dropping Springs. They will then meet in public to vote on whether to authorize board President Kate Varian to amend the terms.
Varian, who buys fish at the city-owned fish auction, said Tuesday that the issue is important to city officials but she didn’t know much about it.
Bert Jongerden, general manager of the fish exchange, declined to comment.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]