PORTLAND — With his yellow tape measure strapped to his belt, city code enforcement officer Chuck Fagone walks slowly along Commercial Street near the Casco Bay Lines Ferry Terminal.

Despite a light drizzle, two dozen vendors have set up shop on the sidewalk, a phenomenon that happens every time a cruise ship visits.

Fagone’s job is to keep the peace between the vendors — who say their wares are artwork protected by the First Amendment — and downtown merchants, who say the vendors block pedestrian traffic and create a poor impression of the city.

Fagone uses his tape measure to make sure that vendors take up no more than 12 square feet of space while leaving at least 4 feet of sidewalk for pedestrians.

“We want to make sure they have the opportunity to know what the rules are,” he says.

Although cruise ships have been calling in Portland since the 1980s, it wasn’t until three years ago that street vendors began making their presence felt, and their numbers have expanded exponentially, city officials say.

Last year, pedestrians and merchants complained that vendors were blocking sidewalks around the cruise ship terminal, forcing people to walk in the street. The city responded by limiting the number of vendors, allowing artists but forcing craftspeople to leave.

Portland does not allow vendors to sell merchandise, but it does allow “street artists” to sell art.

At one point last year, a city attorney, a police officer and a code enforcement officer examined each vendor’s wares to determine whether they were one-of-a-kind works of art or manufactured trinkets.

This year, rather than getting into arguments over the definition of art, city officials decided to address the conflict by enforcing an existing ordinance aimed at making sure there is enough room for pedestrians to pass on the sidewalks.

In addition, Fagone said, anything obviously mass-produced, like bobble-head dolls or sunglasses, can’t be sold. Anything that has the appearance of being handmade — even wallets made of duct tape or starfish dressed in tiny bathing suits — is allowed.

Bob Doyle, a street vendor who sells handcrafted arrowheads, said the new approach is working.

“He’s OK,” Doyle said of Fagone. “He’s better than a police officer and lawyer telling us what’s art an what’s not art.”

But there is still plenty of conflict over the issue of how to control the vendors.

So far this season, Fagone and a police cadet have handed out three $60 tickets to vendors. Those vendors, however, are challenging the fines, and the issue is heading to District Court, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who co-chairs the City Council’s Street Artists Task Force.

And the merchants aren’t happy, either. More than 60 have signed a petition asking the city to crack down on street vendors.

“Get rid of them,” said Ryan Harding, who manages Ports of Call, a gift shop on Commercial Street. He said the vendors block pedestrian traffic. Unlike the merchants, they don’t pay any taxes or fees, he said.

Joseph Redman, owner of Joseph’s, a high-end clothing store on Fore Street, said the vendors create a chaotic environment.

“It doesn’t present a good image of our city,” he said.

Suslovic said the task force will be meeting over the winter to figure out what to do next. He said the issue is complicated because people have the right to sell artwork in public places, and the legal definition of art is broad.

He said the city staff is working on a proposal that would allow vendors only on sidewalks that are sufficiently wide, which would limit them to certain sidewalks. He would not give any more details on the proposal.

Another idea is to require the vendors to register with the city so it would make it easier for the city to educate them about the rules.

Also, there’s discussion about limiting the vendors to the wide sidewalk on Thames Street, located near the Ocean Gateway terminal, Suslovic said.

On Saturday, most of the vendors were selling either handmade jewelry or prints of photographs. Some of them arrived at early as 4:45 a.m. to claim the best spots.

Many say the city should let them stay where they are.

One vendor, a Lisbon resident who identified herself as “Linda the Duck Tape Artist,” said that the vendors serve as goodwill ambassadors for the city and give cruise ship passengers directions and advice about where to eat and what to see.

“We are like a welcoming committee,” she said.

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

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