PORTLAND — Wharf and pier owners got encouraging news about funding for dredging on Feb. 21, but the waterfront zoning outlook remains murky.

The 10-member Waterfront Working Group, which has been meeting every other Thursday since Jan. 3, continues to grapple with an overlay area of the Waterfront Central Zone created by city councilors in 2010.

The overlay zone largely extends 150 feet back from the water side of Commercial Street, but stretches to 500 feet back on Union, Fisherman’s, Chandlers and Long wharves. Inside the zone, nonmarine uses completely banned in the rest of the zone are allowed with City Council approval.

The potential for permitted uses, including a 93-room hotel once planned by developers Nathan and David Bateman, was the catalyst for a possible referendum to eliminate the overlay zone.

The petition drive for the referendum and the hotel plan have been withdrawn, but consensus in the task force on the zoning created to stem the petition drive remains elusive.

At the first task force meeting Jan. 3, City Manager Jon Jennings warned zoning would be time-consuming. The first try, an amendment to ban all contract zoning in the overlay area, did not survive a Planning Board workshop in January.

Since then, significant portions of two-hour task force meetings have discussed zoning, including possible reductions of the overlay zone to 125 feet from its basic 150 feet.

Fishermen on the task force, including Willis Spear and Keith Lane, have been adamant they want no opportunities for developers to present plans like the Batemans’, and will also oppose a plan to build a hotel outside the zone at the intersection of Center and Commercial streets.

Conversely, pier owners Charlie Poole and Steve DiMillo have said some flexibility in land use is needed, because nonmarine uses can help pay for maintenance on the wharves. 

DiMillo strongly opposed reducing the overlay length on his Long Wharf from 500 feet to 300 feet because of its effects on future development.

Lane, who has supported keeping the zone intact on Union and Long wharves, said fishermen need more assurances for the viability of the marine industry.

“We got a couple of bones,” he said. “We need more, half a chicken.”

The financial bones to help owners with potential dredging and maintenance costs could be coming from funds in the tax increment finance district covering the waterfront zone and beyond.

TIF districts, which require state approval, are established to recapture future increases in property tax valuations resulting from development. The recaptured funds can either be shared with specific entities through credit enhancement agreements or kept entirely by the governing body.

“The program is too often misunderstood, but is an economic development program,” City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said.

The TIF district now running from Cassidy Point to the former Portland Co. complex is expected to generate $2 million in recaptures next year and as much as $5 million by fiscal year 2022.

The recapture amount is expected to more than double because of increased development, like the project now underway at the former Rufus Deering Lumber Co. site. The TIF is in place until 2030, and has no credit enhancement agreements.

Recaptured funds can be used for a variety of purposes in the TIF district, including paying for dredging operations at piers and wharves.

A plan to dredge areas of Portland Harbor, then store the dredged materials in South Portland, now has an estimated price tag of $30 million.

In the near future, available recaptured funds could be $700,000, and Jennings asked task force members for suggestions on how money could be used.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The Waterfront Working Group, which meets every other Thursday in Portland City Hall, continues to discuss how to amend Commercial Street zoning for nonmarine uses.