PORTLAND — The Planning Board is entering the final stretch of its review of proposed changes to the Waterfront Central Zone, and at their last meeting members hinted they may delve into whether residences should be allowed in the zone.

For more than a year, a dozen wharf owners have been working with Planning Department staff to come up with proposed changes to zoning rules for the central waterfront that would allow more non-marine uses , including restaurants, shops and recreational boating. The zone includes properties between Maine Wharf and Deakes Wharf.

The property owners do not propose allowing residences, but at least two Planning Board members and representatives of a local architects society said the issue should be explored.

The question is controversial; longtime Portland residents often site a 23-year-old citizen referendum where voters nixed residential development on the “working waterfront.”

The 1987 referendum led to strict waterfront regulations, including not allowing non-marine uses on the first floor of buildings on wharves. The restrictions were meant to protect the working waterfront, and in particular the fishing and lobstering industry.

But the fishing industry in Portland has taken a major dive in recent years, as the catch has declined and federal restrictions have been placed on the number of fishing days allowed. Pier owners say that without tenants, their wharves are falling into disrepair.

Allowing more non-marine uses will give wharf owners more revenue to fix piers, they say. The owners are also asking for relaxed parking requirements and more room along piers for non-commercial vessel berths.

The proposal also includes allowing buildings along the water side of Commercial Street to extend back 150 feet, instead of only 100 feet. Non-marine use is allowed on the first floor in those buildings.

At a May 25 Planning Board workshop, architect Scott Teas, whose firm is on the waterfront in the Thomas Block, said that when that block on Commercial Street was developed in the 1970s, allowing residences on the two top floors made the development financially viable.

“We would have lost that project if we couldn’t have done residential,” Teas said. He added residential uses also brought life to that part of Commercial Street after business hours.

Paul Stevens, a representative of the Portland Society of Architects, said the board should consider omitting the current prohibition on residential development within the zone.

Planning Board member Joe Lewis said he thought residential and industrial uses could mix.

Planner David Silk said he does not understand how hotels – another prohibited use in the zone – were more disruptive to the working waterfront than restaurants and stores, and suggested that use be explored, too. Silk and Planner Lee Lowry requested a map of property lines for the zone that marked off the 150-foot zone along Commercial Street.

Planning Board Chairman Bill Hall, however, said he would want consideration of residential or hotels to go to voters.

The Planning Board meets Tuesday, June 8, at 3:30 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall for a final workshop on the Waterfront Central Zone. A public hearing and vote is scheduled for June 22, at a time yet to be determined.

The Planning Board will recommend changes to the City Council, which will make the ultimate decision on any zoning changes.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]

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