A group of fishermen and their supporters is dropping a push for a citywide referendum to stop non-marine uses from expanding on Portland’s working waterfront.

Lobster traps and fishing gear crowd the Portland Fish Pier last May. The Working Waterfront Group had collected 2,300 signatures in advance of its filing deadline this week – far exceeding the 1,500 needed to force a citywide vote. The effort, which was dropped Monday, could have reinstituted restrictions on non-water-dependent uses.

The Working Waterfront Group said in a written statement that it will not submit the signatures it already has collected to force a vote on a proposed ordinance prohibiting the expansion of non-water-dependent uses within the central waterfront, which includes the piers along Commercial Street from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal. If it passed, the ordinance would have been in force for five years.

Although the group said it is not done working to protect waterfront access for fishermen and others whose livelihoods depend on it, its decision Monday drew praise from the city and is sure to have pier owners breathing a sigh of relief.

“I greatly appreciate the commitment by the fishermen and members of the Working Waterfront Group not to go forward with the referendum,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email Monday night. “There is a lot of work remaining, but I believe our group will make substantial progress toward preserving the working waterfront for generations to come.”

The group said it had collected 2,300 signatures in advance of its Friday filing deadline – far exceeding the 1,500 needed to force a citywide vote. The group thanked supporters who collected signatures and helped draft the ordinance, which essentially would have re-instituted restrictions that voters adopted in the mid-1980s in response to the construction of waterfront condominiums.

The decision against moving forward comes days after a developer withdrew his proposal to build a waterfront hotel that had become a catalyst for the referendum effort, and after the city announced that it would eliminate a loophole that allowed the hotel to be proposed on Fisherman’s Wharf.


“The group has decided to do this in a good-faith response to the city’s current effort to work toward significant changes in waterfront zoning and other measures to protect Portland’s working waterfront,” the group said in a written statement Monday afternoon. “We wish to thank Professor (Orlando) Delogu for his assistance in drafting the referendum initiative and also the many volunteers and signature gatherers who helped to collect 2,300 signatures. We believe that their efforts have made this good-faith collaboration with the city possible and hope that they stay engaged in the process over the next 6 months.”


Although it is dropping the referendum effort, the Working Waterfront Group said it is looking to continue working with the city over the next few months to address remaining concerns about the city’s zoning rules.

In a three-page document with 19 specific requests, the group called for the elimination of the Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone, which allows non-marine-dependent development within 150 feet of Commercial Street.

It also wants the city to tighten a provision that allows pier owners to lease up to 45 percent of the ground-floor space on the outer piers to non-marine uses to ensure that improvements don’t prohibit a water-dependent use from returning to that space. And it wants the city to re-enforce a provision ensuring that the edges of all 14 piers are used for water-dependent uses.

The group’s leaders also are calling on the city to meet an existing ordinance requirement to conduct an annual inventory of waterfront uses so councilors can track changes in the working waterfront over time. The city released an inventory this month that was the first in six years.


The threat of a referendum – the results of which the city would not be able to alter for five years – prompted swift reaction from city leaders.

Portland’s 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. The city also launched a study and master planning effort to address traffic congestion on Commercial Street.

The petitioners continued gathering signatures as that working group began meeting, but changed course after more concessions were announced last week.

First, David Bateman announced his Fisherman’s Wharf project would no longer include a hotel. The developer said, in part, “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 last week does not say what would replace the 93-room hotel, which would have required a contract zone from the City Council. Other components of the mixed-use project, including a 500-vehicle parking garage, offices and retail, would remain the same.


And second, Jennings said the city plans to eliminate hotels and other conditional and contract uses from the Waterfront Central Zone. The Planning Board will take up the proposal on Jan. 22 and is charged with sending a formal 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, a history that underscored the concerns of wharf owners and city officials.

Three decades ago, a citizen-led referendum to restrict the central waterfront to commercial fishing and other water-dependent uses 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.

The Waterfront Central Zone contains 14 privately owned piers, plus the Gulf of Maine Research 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 contacted at 791-6346 or at:


Twitter: randybillings

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: