PORTLAND — Pierce Atwood and city officials have reached a tentative deal in which the law firm would pay the financially troubled Portland Fish Exchange an undisclosed amount of money if the city-owned auction house agrees to restrict development on two empty lots that abut the law firm’s new waterfront headquarters.

The development restriction would protect the law firm’s view of the Fore River. At the same time, the restriction would allow fishermen to continue using the lots to repair their nets.

Critics, though, say the deal is a bad one for the city because it would give up development rights on the last undeveloped lots on the Portland Fish Pier.

Any deal would require approval of the directors of two city boards — the Portland Fish Exchange and the Portland Fish Pier Authority.

The deal is a model for how the fishing industry and non-marine uses can successfully co-exist, said Thomas Valleau, who was part of the negotiations and is a board member of the fish exchange.

“If this project goes through, it will be very encouraging to people that we know how to work our way through difficult issues,” Valleau said.

The city-owned fish pier was established in the 1980s to serve as a hub for the fishing industry, including processors and distributors.

Pierce Atwood’s desire to secure parking on the pier and waterfront views is now interfering with that mission, said John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood, a fish and lobster processor and distributor on the pier.

There are only three undeveloped lots on the pier. One is a parking lot near Commercial Street; Pierce Atwood plans to lease 70 of the 165 parking spaces. Norton said the long-term lease would put the parking lot off-limits to development.

The other two lots are located east of the Cumberland Cold Storage building, which Pierce Atwood plans to renovate into law offices.

For nearly 30 years, the asphalt area has been used by groundfishermen as a workplace for stretching and mending nets.

Since May, Dropping Springs, which supplies herring bait to the lobster industry, has occupied the section of net yard closest to the Cumberland Cold Storage building.

The tentative agreement would move the bait company about 200 feet from the building and spells out how the move will be funded. The bait company has agreed to the proposal.

The use restrictions proposed by Pierce Atwood would render the remaining portion of the two lots off-limits to development. That would run counter to the fish pier’s mission, Norton said.

“If granted, they will have tied up the last two developable lots on the Portland Fish Pier for non-fishing uses,” he said.

Details of the tentative agreement won’t be made public until after it is reviewed by lawyers, Valleau said.

He said he believes there will be a joint meeting of the two city boards to hear a presentation on the proposal and take a vote. The meeting will happen on Aug. 9 or sooner, he said.

Dennis Keeler, a partner in charge of facilities for Pierce Atwood, said the deal would benefit Pierce Atwood by protecting the view of the water from its new offices.

In addition, the bait company’s freezer trailers produce a lot of noise. Moving the bait company away from the Cumberland Cold Storage building would reduce the noise, Keeler said, and give fishermen a longer work area for stretching their nets. The bait company also has been blocking emergency access to the building, city officials have said.

At the same time, Keeler said, the deal would help the fish exchange, which is struggling financially because of state and federal regulations and market forces that have drastically reduced Maine’s groundfishing fleet.

Keeler said Pierce Atwood’s employees are excited that the firm is using its resources to help fishermen.

“I really do think it would be a win-win,” he said.

The city is giving the owners of the blighted 19th-century Cumberland Cold Storage warehouse a $2.8 million tax break to help fund the renovation of the building. Pierce Atwood will be the largest tenant.

Keeler said the move is contingent on the resolution of several issues, including reaching an agreement to protect the net yard from development.

On Wednesday, two fishing crews were working in the net yard. Both crews said that moving the bait operation and preserving the yard would be good news.

Fishermen don’t care who occupies the Cumberland Cold Storage building, said Jamie Connors, a crew member on the dragger Dianne Lynn II, as he made last-minute repairs to a net before it was loaded on the vessel using a large roller at the end of the pier. “All we care about is that we have a place to work,” he said.

Another crew member, Brian Perkins, said the net yard is the one competitive advantage that Portland has over Gloucester, Mass., and Boston, which don’t have such a facility. There is no other place in Portland Harbor where fishermen can do this work, he said.

Kate Varian, president of the fish exchange, said the proposal would limit the exchange’s options for development. But at the same time, it would give the auction house some steady income.

“There’s an upside and a downside,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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