June 9, 2012

Evicted lobster store's fate up in air

Three Sons Lobster has been unable to find a new location after Maine Wharf's deterioration forced the owner to evict tenants.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Luring customers into Three Sons Lobster & Fish on Maine Wharf hasn't been difficult over the last decade. The business' lobster mascot, dancing on Commercial Street, catches the eye and many tourists and locals stop to pose for photos.

click image to enlarge

Three Sons Lobster & Fish remains open on Maine Wharf for now but must vacate by July 31. Three Sons owner Stuart Norton says if he can’t find a new location by then he’ll be out of business.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

After July 31, the dancing lobster could be a thing of the past. Broken and deteriorated pilings forced the pier's owner to issue eviction notices last fall to the lobster dealer and two other businesses on Maine Pier.

While the other evicted businesses found new locations, Three Sons owner Stuart Norton can't find another space on the waterfront, at least partly because the city relaxed waterfront zoning to allow non-marine uses.

Norton sued to challenge the eviction and bought some time, but he finally settled out of court and now has to be off the pier by July 31.

"We've been looking for a place ... but I haven't found anything," Norton said. "I have to make something happen or else I'm out of business."

Great Maine Wharf LLC, the owner of Maine Wharf, issued the eviction notices in October after an engineer deemed the pier under the buildings unsafe. Outside Three Sons, the structural deficiencies are clearly visible. Along an outside wall, metal siding is peeling back where the building is buckling.

Wharf owner Eric Cianchette said he didn't want to evict the tenants, but a piling directly beneath Three Sons is broken and several others are significantly deteriorated.

"We didn't want to see anybody leave, but we didn't want anybody to get hurt," Cianchette said.

Norton sued to fight the eviction because he had a five-year lease and hoped he could come back after the pier was fixed. But his attorney said he should agree to a settlement that would allow him to operate on the pier through most of this summer.

"It's very expensive to fight a landlord and go through the appeals process with no guarantee of winning," said John McVeigh of the Preti Flaherty law firm. "He didn't have the economic power to fight the landlord."

Even before the evictions, Cianchette put the wharf up for sale, for $3.9 million. In recent years, Cianchette has said he would like to build a boutique hotel there, but hotels are not allowed in Portland's central waterfront zone.

On Friday, Cianchette would not comment on potential future uses of the pier.

Norton said that zoning amendments passed by the City Council last year are making it more difficult for businesses like his to find space.

The new zoning allows for as much as 45 percent of the ground-floor space on the outer edges of piers to be leased for non-marine uses. Previously, only marine businesses were allowed in such space, to preserve Portland's working waterfront.

Pier owners said they needed more flexibility to attract tenants and pay for pier maintenance.

The changes that took effect last year were billed as a compromise, protecting the interests of pier owners and those who rely on direct water access to earn a living.

City planners are tracking the impact of the zoning changes on the waterfront. City planner Bill Needelman said it's too soon to say whether water-dependent businesses have been hurt.

Norton said he looked into leasing first-floor space at the new Pierce Atwood building on Merrill's Wharf. Even though he was willing to pay $1,500 a month more in rent than he does in his current location, lease conditions would have made it difficult to do business.

"Everyone wants offices," Norton said. "They want dry businesses that don't have water on the floor."

Norton said he checked out another waterfront location, but the landlord also owns the building where Free Range Lobster operates and didn't want to bring in competition.

(Continued on page 2)

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