When the Portland City Council voted eight years ago to allow more non-marine uses along its working waterfront, city staff was required by ordinance to compile an annual inventory of waterfront businesses to make sure that fishermen and businesses that need access to the harbor were not pushed out.

The zone changes were enacted during the Great Recession as a way for pier owners to generate revenue to repair the deteriorating piers. The changes had the support of both pier owners and commercial fishermen, although some warned they could lead to erosion of the working waterfront.

But only two of those annual reports, for 2011 and 2012, have been compiled in the eight years since the ordinance was passed, and no detailed inventory has been compiled during a historic development boom in Maine’s largest city during the past six years.

That’s left the city scrambling for data amid the threat of a citizen initiative that would block development of non-marine uses within the Waterfront Central Zone, which covers the waterside of Commercial Street from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

“It obviously has slipped off our radar,” said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who was mayor when the 2010 changes were approved by the council. “If it hasn’t been done, it should have been done.”

Now, with the city facing the threat of a referendum, a new inventory is underway and could be presented to city leaders as soon as Wednesday.

The rapid pace of development in Maine’s largest city has caused anxiety in many residents – from Stroudwater to Munjoy Hill – who fear that Portland is losing its charm and character, while catering to wealthier new residents and visitors. That anxiety spread to the working waterfront when developer David Bateman proposed a 93-room hotel for Fishermen’s Wharf.

With Portland facing the threat of a referendum on waterfront uses, a new inventory of waterfront businesses is now underway and could be presented to city leaders as soon as this week.

That, and the lack of data about how zone changes adopted in 2010 are affecting water-dependent uses such as commercial fishing, prompted a group calling itself the Portland Working Waterfront Group to begin collecting signatures for a citywide referendum to restore protections enacted in the late 1980s for the working waterfront.

The group cited the lack of annual inventories in a Sept. 13 letter to councilors, the city manager and the mayor, in which they requested the city enact a moratorium on waterfront development.

“There have been no reports prepared for the years 2013-2017 as required by the ordinance,” Attorney Sandra Guay wrote on behalf of the waterfront group. “The city should not be permitting any new non-marine related businesses in the Commercial Street area, if it does not even know what is there now, how the area has developed over the last 5-6 years, and what impact it’s had on the marine industries.”

The group says that the city did not respond to its request for a moratorium until it began collecting signatures.

On Dec. 17, the council enacted a moratorium and has since established an 11-member working group to look at a host of issues affecting the working waterfront. It is also studying ways to improve traffic along Commercial Street, which is a top concern of fishermen and other people who rely on the waterfront for a living.

Shortly after reporting on the referendum effort, the Press Herald requested copies of the missing inventories on Oct. 30. After weeks of waiting, city officials conceded that the inventories have not been produced annually as required by ordinance and that staff was working to update its report.

“This is our mess-up,” said City Manager Jon Jennings, who joined the city in 2015.

City officials did not provide a clear explanation about why the reports have not been compiled, but they say the absence of those reports does not mean they have been neglecting the waterfront.

“We never took our eyes off the waterfront,” said Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator who was with the city when the rules were changed in 2010.

The inventories were supposed to be a way to measure the impact of zoning changes enacted in 2010 – changes that some state officials in the Baldacci administration worried would force out water-dependent uses.

“(The Department of Marine Resources) views the commercial fishing industry within Portland harbor as healthy and with great potential,” then-DMR Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said in a Dec. 13, 2010, letter to the Department of Environmental Protection’s assistant shoreland zoning coordinator, Michael Morse. “We believe that the needs of area fishermen now and into the future would be seriously compromised by what is being proposed.”

Despite those concerns, the zoning changes received the necessary state approvals from the shoreland zoning unit of the DEP’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality. The rules were approved in June 2011 by the new LePage administration.

Approved during the Great Recession, the zone changes were presented as a way for pier owners to generate more revenue, which in turn would allow them to make repairs and improvements.

The council created a Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone for new non-water-dependent businesses, with the exception of residences, within 150 feet of Commercial Street. It expanded permitted uses to include restaurants and retail stores. Outside of the overlay zone, pier owners are able to lease up to 45 percent of their first-floor space to non-marine uses, but only after aggressively and unsuccessfully marketing that space at a reasonable rate to marine uses for at least 60 days.

Projects that exceed $250,000 in the non-marine overlay zone must invest at least 5 percent of a project’s costs into maintaining the commercial piers. The goal is to ensure that retail or office development at the head of the piers helps protect water access for fishing and maritime businesses.

Charlie Poole, who owns Union Wharf, said at a recent City Council meeting that he invested about $1.8 million into pier repairs as part of his office building project.

Jennings said his newly appointed Waterfront Working Group, which includes fishermen and pier owners, among others, is due to meet for the first time Thursday afternoon and he expects staff to present an updated inventory of waterfront uses.

A 2009-10 analysis of the working waterfront conducted by the city indicated 128 businesses were located in the Waterfront Central Zone, 78 of which were water-dependent. There were 1,200 to 1,300 marine-related jobs and an additional 600-700 non-marine jobs. And the city counted 175 commercial vessels occupying 16,000 linear feet of commercial berthing and 494 other non-commercial vessels in the zone. The most recent waterfront inventory, published in June 2013, indicated that 65 percent of the 371,000 square feet of ground-floor building space on the piers outside of the non-marine overlay zone in 2012 were marine-dependent, while 25 percent was non-marine and 10 percent was vacant. Also, 75 percent of the 22 acres of undeveloped land and piers was actively being used by marine-dependent businesses. Berthing information was not included in the 2012 inventory.

Although the updated report is being completed, Needelman said in a recent interview that the percentage of marine uses on the outer piers has dropped to about 68 percent, but is still above the 55 percent minimum. Only one non-water-dependent project – the new office at Union Wharf – has taken advantage of the non-marine use overlay zone, Needelman said.

A second project – the 93-room hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf, which for some crystallized the threat to the working waterfront – has been proposed, but has not been voted on.

Maine Wharf also has undergone a significant makeover since the new rules were adopted, but that project did not occur in the non-marine use zone. Needelman said the project involved rebuilding existing structures that were first marketed to non-marine uses before becoming the Portland Science Center, which is now closed, and a restaurant.

In addition to the percentage of non-marine dependent uses increasing on the piers, Needelman said he also has heard concerns about surface parking lots being expanded within the Waterfront Central Zone. But further analysis is needed to determine whether any possible lot expansions are legally serving pier-tenants, or if they’re serving other, upland businesses that are not located within the zone.

“I think one of the things we’ve been hearing from the lobstermen and I think is observable down there is less casual storage,” Needelman said. “There’s less space for stacking lobster traps, being able to work on gear and an expansion of parking I think is likely what’s filled that space. But is that parking for a legal use that’s on the pier? That’s why it needs a closer look.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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