Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that will give commercial fishing businesses on the water the same protection against property tax hikes already granted to forest, farmland and open space.

The goal of the so-called working waterfront referendum is to slow down rampant development along the coast by giving commercial fishermen a tax break so they can afford to hold onto their access to the water.

The successful passage of the referendum allows the Legislature to craft language that will put working waterfront in a class similar to timberland and farms, and outline the rules for paying back taxes if a property is sold for development.

Capital bonds totaling $74 million also were approved by voters Tuesday. The only bond that appeared to be failing was Question 6, which asked for $9 million in capital improvements at state universities. It was behind by less than one percentage point after midnight.

It was the second time on the ballot for the working waterfront proposal – defeated by just 4,000 votes in 2000 – and proponents were savoring the victory Tuesday night.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” said Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, as the early returns showed the working waterfront referendum with a sizeable lead.

Percy said she was “grateful” to Governor John Baldacci for making good on a promise to help get the referendum back on the ballot and to the farming and fishing community, which came out in support of the referendum this time around, bringing in the vote from inland communities.

“Everybody jumped in to help the fishermen,” Percy said, and she believes it could be a movement that will spread to other East Coast states. “I think it could have a ripple effect,” she said, and “send the message…that fishing is an important, natural-resource based industry that needs protecting.”

Percy worked hard with other coastal and rural caucus legislators to keep the working waterfront initiative alive and eventually pass it with a unanimous vote in the Legislature. She said it was all worth it on Tuesday when she went to cast her vote.

“When I turned that ballot over and actually saw it in print…my heart just jumped,” Percy said.

Political consultant, Dennis Bailey, who worked on the initiative listed as Question 7 on the ballot, said the campaign didn’t have a lot of money, but targeted its efforts. An appeal was mailed to the state’s 11,000 licensed commercial fishermen and a TV ad created in a class at Bowdoin College ran on cable. It featured Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, whose Maine accent was “perfect” on the commercial, Bailey said.

Bailey said the campaign had to work against what he called “voter fatigue” since Question 7 was the last question on the statewide ballot and some people might get sick of voting yes after all the bond questions.

That effect apparently didn’t kick in. Question 7 received the strongest support of all the referendum questions and was the only one to get more than 70 percent of the vote.

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