Last November, 10 Portland residents, mostly fishermen, filed a petition seeking a referendum to restore the concept of water dependency to the zoning provisions that control development along the seaward side of Commercial Street, including the 18 existing piers.

A similar initiative was adopted by the citizens of Portland in 1987 but has been eroded to the point of non-existence by City Council-approved amendments. Offices, shops, restaurants, parking (all non-water dependent uses) are widely permitted. Hotel development was proposed. These uses have squeezed, and now threaten the continued existence of, Portland’s fishing fleet as well as many other water-dependent activities (Eimskip, Sprague, Vessel Services, ship supply and repair services, cruise, tugboat and ferry services) that all need water access.

The city bureaucracy – the Planning Board, the Economic Development Department, the city manager’s office, the mayor and the City Council – that for years has championed unbridled growth on the waterfront and in nearby areas sat up and took notice of the new initiative. Long-ignored calls to discuss growing development pressures in surrounding neighborhoods and on water-dependent users of the waterfront were heeded, and meetings hastily organized.

City Manager Jon Jennings took the lead. Planning Board data on non-water dependent uses within waterfront zones were brought up to date. Several councilors proclaimed that a hotel would never be approved – that other loopholes in the present zoning could and should be closed. The idea of a six-month moratorium surfaced. Would the initiators hold off on their signature-gathering effort in order to allow Portland (now said to be awake to neighborhood and waterfront problems) to make zoning changes that would preclude the need for a new initiative?

In less than six weeks (mid-December), the moratorium was passed as an emergency measure. Unfortunately it was limited to only the Waterfront Central Zone; it did, however, call for a task force (which the city manager quickly assembled) to begin putting some of the more obvious zoning changes in place.

A series of meetings beginning in early January was scheduled. There was an abundance of hope. With over 2,300 signatures in hand – more than enough to put their proposed zoning changes to the voters – the initiators (mostly fishermen) accepted the city’s olive branch. They withdrew their initiative days before the deadline for submitting the 1,500 required signatures.

They accepted the city’s assertion that more could be accomplished by working cooperatively than by passing an initiative that many developers and pier owners saw as too blunt an instrument. Time will tell whether this cooperation will produce the zoning changes needed to preserve Portland’s working waterfront. The early signs are not promising.

The Waterfront Working Group on its face seems a fair-minded body, but it suffers from the absence of any critic of recent city zoning policies; from the absence of the initiators’ lead counsel, Sandra Guay, who could clarify their position; from the absence of anyone with solid land use planning credentials. It suffers from the fact that all of its background information and the facilitation of the meetings are provided by the same city bureaucracy that gave rise to the present problems.

It suffers from the lack of opportunity for any public input into task force proceedings. Each week a large and patient audience can only listen. Questionable bureaucratic statements go unchallenged. People can mail their comments in, but that’s hardly an effective or timely mechanism. I suggest devoting the last half-hour of task force sessions to public input.

Finally, having sat through all of the task force meetings to date, I believe that what seems missing is any sense of urgency. The same zeal that created the moratorium as an emergency measure seems to have waned. I see the council extending the task force for an additional six months, but if we’re still talking about continuing to allow parked cars, office blocks and restaurants that have fish on the menu as water-related uses in a non-marine use overlay zone in the heart of the Waterfront Central Zone, the woes of fishermen and the working waterfront will not have been fixed.