PORTLAND – After two years of debate, the City Council has backed off an effort to require street art sellers to register with the city, passing only modest new restrictions for street artists.
But the new rules, adopted by the council late Monday night, appear to target a new group of artists — those who perform with fire in Tommy’s Park and Monument Square.
The rules will prohibit artists from setting up tables or sales displays in a small portion of Bell Buoy Park. They also will ban artists citywide from other activities that create a public safety hazard, including the use of open flames. City officials do not yet have a plan for enforcing that rule.
Street artists and supporters consider the new regulations a victory, especially after a task force proposed rules that essentially would have driven them out of much of the Old Port and waterfront areas. But some remain concerned about how the new rules will affect blacksmiths and street performers such as jugglers who use open flames on public property.
“We weren’t ever really sure we should be celebrating,” said Abriel Ferreira, who plays trumpet during First Friday Art Walks.
The city has been wrestling with street artist regulations since 2011, when concerns were raised about vendors selling items they don’t make. Concerns also were raised about artists setting up tables on sidewalks, making them impassable.
About 60 businesses signed a petition asking the city to crack down on street artists, who they claimed blocked their doors and stole their business.
The Portland Downtown District favored the crackdown. Executive Director Jan Beitzer said Monday that the city needs to take action against people claiming to be artists who are actually selling secondhand goods.
A task force studied the street artist issue for several months and recommended sweeping rules that would have banned artists from sidewalks less than 8 feet wide and from being within 10 feet of an open, nonfood retail establishment. It also recommended banning artists from Bell Buoy Park and requiring artists to register for free at City Hall, where they would be given rules.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, originally supported the task force recommendations. But the committee whittled them down, prohibiting artists only from a small portion of Bell Buoy Park to preserve emergency access to the fireboat, and prohibiting them from being a public safety hazard.
On Monday night, Suslovic offered an amendment to pull the registry requirement, which was approved 5-2, with councilors Jill Duson and John Coyne opposed.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine threatened to sue the city if it adopted the registry requirement, saying it would violate artists’ free speech rights.
Suslovic did not return calls for comment Tuesday to explain his decision to drop the registry requirement.
Portland resident Abbeth Russell is a co-founder of the Creative Community Coalition, which has been fighting restrictions on artists. Russell said Tuesday that the coalition is pleased the city decided not to ban artists from Bell Buoy Park, a popular place for people to set up when cruise ships are in town, and also decided against the registry.
But Russell, a fire juggler, is concerned about the public safety hazard definition, which was never fully vetted by the committee or the council.
“It was just completely added at random,” Russell said. “I don’t think they realize what a large community that’s going to be affecting.”
Although the new rules will allow the city to crack down on artists and performers who use open flames, the extent to which that rule, among others, will be enforced remains to be seen.
Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister said she is still working on an enforcement plan with the fire department and code officers, who will be charged with enforcement.
The rule, which takes effect in 30 days, would give the city new powers to shut down street performers who are juggling or dancing with fire or blowing fire on public property — activities, McAllister said, that have generated “a lot” of complaints in the past.
“That was the point — to give the enforcement officials a tool to use when in their opinion they see something that is truly unsafe for the public,” she said.
The Maine Fire Dancing Collective has been putting on performances most Fridays in Tommy’s Park for the past five years without incident, said Elias Brenick, a Portland resident and collective co-founder.
Brenick said he was disappointed that the group was not consulted about the changes, since it has a history of working with local authorities to keep performers and audiences safe.
“We use well-defined safety protocols that have met with approval from city fire officials in the past,” Brenick said. “We have also worked extensively and positively with the police to keep (our) performances safe and community-friendly.”
Emilie Palmer, a fire performer and organizer, said she was unaware of the city’s new rule until contacted by a reporter. Palmer lives in the Boston area, where such performances are illegal. Performers in the loose-knit collective come to Portland from all over the region and take safety precautions so no one gets injured, Palmer said.
“We’d like to do everything in our power to work with the city to allow this to continue to happen,” she said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: