A local developer has dropped a controversial plan to build a hotel on the Portland waterfront and city officials are proposing zoning changes to prohibit future hotels – a use that has prompted an effort to hold a citywide referendum to protect the city’s working waterfront.

Developer David Bateman said in a letter to the city Thursday that he is no longer interested in building a 93-room hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf. The proposal has been reviewed three times by the Planning Board since it was unveiled nearly two years ago.

“We understand the current position of the local fishermen and their concern for this specific use in this location,” Bateman said in his letter. “Additionally, we do not wish to be a contributing factor to any actions which would create a negative impact on our fellow wharf owners and, ultimately, the residents of the city of Portland.”

An amended application filed Thursday by Bateman’s development team indicated that the rest of the proposal, which also included parking for 500 vehicles and space for offices and retail businesses, would remain the same. It was not immediately clear what use – if any – would replace the hotel in the four-story building being proposed at 184 Commercial St.

City Manager Jon Jennings said in a statement Friday that the city will move quickly to amend the Waterfront Central Zone to prohibit hotels and other conditional and contract uses. The proposal would need approval of both the Planning Board and City Council.

“After many discussions with the Bateman family, I’d like to thank them for taking this important step, as we did not think a hotel use on the waterfront side of Commercial Street was compatible with our working waterfront,” Jennings said. “This change will go far in addressing one of the major concerns we heard from the fishermen of our working waterfront. I also want to thank city staff for the work they have done and continue to do to make the working waterfront viable for generations to come.”

A ‘PARTIAL VICTORY’

A fisherman involved in the referendum effort said the move was a “partial victory” for waterfront advocates, but suggested more information and concessions may be needed to prevent them from turning in their signatures to begin the referendum process.

The move comes a week before a group of working waterfront advocates must decide whether to submit petitions for a citywide vote on a series of ordinance changes that, among other things, would prohibit non-water-dependent uses from expanding within the Waterfront Central Zone, which runs along the water side of Commercial Street, from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal. The ban would include hotels.

The group must submit its petitions by Jan. 18 if it wants the initiative to move forward. The group has said it will not move forward with the referendum if the city shows it is serious about addressing issues that threaten the future of the working waterfront, such as preserving access to vessels and parking, and relieving traffic congestion on Commercial Street.

In an effort to head off a referendum that could lead to restrictions the city would not be able to alter for five years, the City Council unanimously approved a six-month building moratorium for non-marine uses within the zone and established an 11-member Waterfront Working Group of fishermen, pier owners and citizens to begin addressing concerns raised by fishermen and others who rely on the water to make a living. It has also launched a study and master planning effort to address traffic congestion on Commercial Street.

At the Waterfront Working Group’s first meeting last week, Jennings offered to close a loophole in the ordinance that would allow hotels to be built within a 150 feet of Commercial Street, a change that would need council approval. At that meeting, City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the waterfront, told the group that she has talked to all of the councilors and was confident there was unanimous opposition to approving the Bateman project.

Lobsterman Willis Spear has said the waterfront advocates will decide whether to submit their petitions after the next Waterfront Working Group meeting on Jan. 17, which is one day before the group’s deadline.

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

Spear said more needed to be done to address concerns of fishermen and others looking to protect the working waterfront. He said he’d have to meet with other members of the referendum effort and listen to what officials say this Thursday before deciding if they will move forward with the citizens initiative.

“We’d like to thank Mr. Jennings for his efforts. He’s been working hard and we’d like to thank him for getting us this far,” Spear said. “We look forward to working with him to resolve all of the issues raised by the fishermen and the citizens of Portland.”

Jennings said the city’s plan to eliminate hotels from the Waterfront Central Zone will be discussed at the group’s meeting Thursday and the Planning Board will take it up on Jan. 22. The Planning Board will be charged with sending a recommendation to the City Council, which will have the final say.

City residents have mobilized to protect the working waterfront in the past in response to controversial development projects.

Over 30 years ago, a citizen-led referendum to restrict the central waterfront to water-dependent uses, such as commercial fishing and processing, passed by a 2-1 margin.

That initiative was sparked by the construction of then newly built Chandlers Wharf condominiums and two other proposed projects: a 300-unit condo, retail and marina project on the eastern waterfront and an office complex on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Those restrictions were largely kept in place until 2010, when the council made changes to allow up to 45 percent of the ground-floor space on the outer piers to be leased to non-water-dependent uses, such as offices. The council also created a Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone that generally spans 150 feet from the center of Commercial Street toward the water to non-marine development. Some uses, like hotels, would need special approval from the council.

The changes were enacted during the Great Recession, with the support of representatives of the fishing community, as a way for pier owners to generate additional revenue to make costly repairs to their piers.

DROP IN MARINE-USE SPACE

An inventory of waterfront uses released last week by the city showed an 8 percent drop in both the building space and open space on the piers available for marine-dependent uses. It was the first inventory in six years, despite a requirement in the city ordinance that inventories be completed on an annual basis so the city can track erosion of working waterfront access over time.

The Waterfront Central Zone contains 14 privately owned piers, plus the Gulf of Maine Marine Institute and the publicly owned Portland Fish Pier, according to the inventory. It’s home to a majority of the city’s fishing fleet of mostly lobster boats, fish processing and sales, bait distributors, lobster buyers, tourist excursion vessels, and other marine and non-marine-dependent businesses.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings


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