Lobster traps are piled high on Union Wharf in Portland. Portland’s harbor commissioners will consider new rules to allow storage docks to be moored in the harbor. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Lobstermen want to lease floating docks in Portland Harbor, claiming they have run out of affordable work space on the city’s increasingly gentrified central waterfront and need a new place to store and repair their gear.

Lobster traps and gear take up space at Fish Pier in Portland. The struggle to defend the working waterfront from development dates back to the late 1980s, when the first condominiums were built. Staff photos by Derek Davis

A handful of them are petitioning the Portland Harbor Commission for permission to install what would be the first floating storage docks on the waterfront. Current rules allow ship and boat moorings, but make no mention of storage docks.

“Everybody loves the idea of the working waterfront,” said Jim Buxton, a lobsterman from Scarborough. “They expect a postcard. They want to live here, work here, then get upset when bait stinks and mooring chains rust and leave stains. That’s the job.”

The modern-day struggle to defend the working waterfront from development dates back to the late 1980s in Portland when the first condominiums were built, said Tom Groening, editor of the The Island Institute’s Working Waterfront.

That prompted a Maine constitutional amendment that allowed wharf owners to have their properties valued at less than their highest and best use, much like what is afforded to farm or forestland owners, to keep taxes, and thus rents, low, he said.

“There are just 20 miles of working waterfront,” Groening said. “Municipal leaders in coastal towns understand the value and threats, but there are also pressures from residents who don’t want to hear or smell this part of the economy.”

PRESSURE FOR DEVELOPMENT

The pressure is mounting as more developers seek permission for waterfront projects or are forced to lease waterfront space to restaurants after failing to recruit marine businesses.

Buxton pays $6,000 a year for a 40-foot berth on Merrills Wharf, where he’s been for 20 years, and a place to park. His narrow float can barely hold all his gear. Rope bits, lobster totes and mooring chains often dot the sidewalk up above.

His landlord tells him it does not sit well with the lawyers, developers and gastropub diners who began sharing Merrills Wharf with him after 2011, when zoning changes allowed the wharf owner to begin accepting non-marine tenants.

As white-collar businesses and tourists have flocked to the central waterfront, local lobstermen have seen unofficial workspaces disappear as tenants put up fences or started parking where fishermen once mended their nets.

Buxton understands his landlord can make more money if he rents space to law firms rather than lobstermen and that privately owned wharves and piers like Merrills need revenue to pay for long-deferred maintenance, such as dredging.

But fishermen depend on Portland Harbor for safe, sheltered access to the sea and other marine services, like the Portland Fish Exchange and local chandlery service, he said. Law firms and gastropubs can be built anywhere.

“Portland is like no other harbor in Maine,” he said. “I’ve got protection from wind on three sides and when we get gale coast winds, I’ve got almost no waves at all. That is what I’m paying for. That is why I’ve stayed here all these years.”

TIME HAS ‘PROBABLY’ COME

The Fish Pier in Portland. Lobsterman Jim Buxton says, “everyone loves the idea of the working waterfront … then get upset when bait stinks and mooring chains rust and leave stains. That’s the job.”

The harbor commission likes the proposal – Chairman Tom Dobbins called it “an idea whose time has probably come” – and will consider adopting new rules to allow storage docks to be moored in the harbor along with boats and ships.

Dobbins knows other Maine ports allow floating storage docks. Some, like Yarmouth, treat them like any other mooring; others, such as Harpswell, set different standards. He thinks Portland would want to regulate size, location, seasonality and total number.

The commission may also consider whether the floating docks require liability insurance.

Harbor Master Kevin Battle is meeting with the lobstermen to review their proposals. New rules would need the OK from Portland, South Portland and state Department of Transportation, as well, which would be a months-long process.

“It’s true, they are running out of room and prices are going up, but do I think it’s the end of the world right now? No, not now,” Dobbins said. “But it could turn into one in 10 or 15 years if we don’t do something about it before it’s too late.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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