PORTLAND — The vacant land along the city’s western waterfront has sat unused for nearly half a century. Once host to a coal gasification plant and a thriving cargo terminal, the property now is covered by poplar and birch trees, some as tall as 25 feet, that sprouted from the industrial rubble.
Those trees now stand in the way of a new boatyard proposed by Portland businessman Phineas Sprague.
The city’s waterfront zoning laws, designed to keep out condos and foster marine-related development, are undermined by a state law aimed at protecting trees along the shore, say Sprague, city planners and state regulators.
“It’s a catch-22,” Sprague said as he walked along the shore. “You can have a boatyard here, but you can’t cut the trees.”
The Department of Environmental Protection now wants to amend the law to make it easier for Sprague and other developers to build on Portland’s waterfront and similar properties along the Maine coast.
Some environmental groups, however, including Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say the bill goes too far and could weaken protections for rivers, lakes, coastal waters and wildlife habitat throughout the state.
The bill, L.D. 470, would exempt “working waterfronts” from tree clearance requirements in the state’s landmark Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Law.
WORKING WATERFRONT DEFINED BROADLY
The bill defines working waterfront so broadly that it would exempt an entire golf course if even a piece of it were leased to a fisherman, said Nick Bennett, a scientist at the Natural Resources Council, at a public hearing of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
He said the bill would also amend the Natural Resources Protection Act and weaken protections for significant wildlife habitat.
While the group supports efforts to redevelop industrial sites, the bill has “sweeping implications for the whole state,” he said.
Commissioner Patricia Aho on Thursday told the committee that opponents misunderstand the bill and that it only removes an unnecessary permitting burden on a narrow set of activities in a limited number of places that previously have been developed.
The bill, she said, “aims to strike a balance between the preservation of Maine’s working waterfront heritage and the protection of Maine’s natural resources.”
LAW DATES BACK TO 1971
First enacted in 1971 in response to increased development pressure, the Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act requires cities and towns to enact development restrictions near significant ponds, rivers and tidal waters.
Since 1989, the law has prevented property owners from clearing the majority of trees within 75 feet of the high-water line.
Sprague said that provision makes it impossible for him to build a boatyard on land located just west of an existing terminal for liquified petroleum gas. He has a 50-year lease with energy company Unitil, and a purchase-and-sale agreement with Pan Am Railways, giving him control of 22 acres in the area.
The land has already been polluted from a coal gasification plant that operated there from 1850 to the mid-1960s. Booms that float just a few yards offshore catch tar that has been seeping from the ground for decades.
IMPORTANT FOR UNDEVELOPED WATERFRONT
Portland’s senior city planner Bill Needleman told lawmakers that the issue is critical not only for Sprague but the rest of the undeveloped stretch of the city’s waterfront.
The decision of Eimskip, an Iceland shipping company, to choose Portland as its North American hub for a transatlantic container service, has created a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to expand marine commerce, he said.
But existing state rules significantly limit the opportunity to realize the full potential of Eimskip’s decision, he said. In fact, it was Eimskip’s move to Portland that brought the issue to the forefront.
That’s because Sprague subsequently decided to move his proposed boatyard farther west and “into the trees,” thus freeing up land next to the International Marine Terminal for a cargo-related development, such as a cold-storage warehouse.
Eimskip officials have said they hope that the steady supply of frozen fish it will import from northern Europe will encourage someone to build a new cold-storage warehouse on the waterfront.
TRYING TO WORK OUT A SOLUTION
The Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday tabled the bill because it was unable to reach consensus. This Tuesday, Bennett, of the Natural Resources Council, will meet with DEP officials and several lawmakers to discuss whether they can agree on a proposal they can bring back to the committee.
“I am willing to talk it through with folks,” Bennett said in an interview.
While several committee members remain concerned that the bill is too expansive, everyone wants to help foster development on working waterfronts, said the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport.
Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, said she is optimistic that the committee will support a bill that will allow Sprague’s project to proceed.
“We are going to work on crafting a better bill,” she said. “The aim is to draw it as narrowly as possible so projects like Mr. Sprague’s can go forward and not have the unintended consequences of ruining pristine areas.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: