The city of Portland is looking to prohibit new restaurants and retail stores on piers along its working waterfront and reduce the area along the water side of Commercial Street where non-water-dependent development can occur.

The proposal was presented last Tuesday to the Planning Board, which in the coming weeks will make a recommendation to the City Council. It’s the product of four months of meetings among city officials, pier owners and commercial fishermen – a stakeholder group that was formed in response to a referendum drive to greatly increase protections within the Waterfront Central Zone, which runs from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, said he hopes the proposal can be quickly enacted, before a moratorium on development along the water side of  Commercial Street expires on June 15.

“It’s hard to overestimate the contentious and political nature of these discussions, as collegial and collaborative as it has been,” Needelman said. “It has been the city’s sincere effort to deliver a product within the timeframe described, not just as a gesture of good faith, but an action of good faith.”

Portland has been undergoing a development boom rivaled only by the rebuilding efforts following the Great Fire of 1866, which destroyed one third of the downtown. Much of the development activity has been between the Old Port and the eastern waterfront, and several hotels have been added downtown, including along Commercial Street.

Fishermen have said that increased traffic and tourism has made it difficult for them to access their boats and gear and move perishable food off the piers during the busy summer months. After trying unsuccessfully to work with the city, the fishermen teamed up with activists to collect signatures for a referendum to protect the working waterfront.

As the effort gained momentum, the council enacted a six-month moratorium on development on the water side of Commercial Street, and city staff proposed eliminating a provision that could have allowed a hotel to be built within that zone. That prompted David Bateman, a local developer whose 93-room hotel project proposed for Fisherman’s Wharf ignited the referendum drive, to withdraw the hotel from his proposal, though he continues to explore redevelopment options on the site.

The fishermen’s group dropped the referendum effort to work with the city – though they cautioned a referendum could still be possible if progress wasn’t made.

Over the last few months, the city’s waterfront working group, established by City Manager Jon Jennings, has been looking at ways to address the concerns of fishermen, while continuing to provide redevelopment options for pier owners. And if Tuesday’s public hearing was any indication, fishermen seem to be getting the better end of the deal, while pier owners worried that their voices were not being heard.

Fishermen thanked the city for its efforts and noted how the working group had also discussed using specially designated city funds to help maintain piers and pay for expensive dredging, saying it was a fair tradeoff for protecting prized waterfront.

Lobsterman Bill Coppersmith said that only 20 miles of Maine’s 3,400 miles of coastline is available as working waterfront and that “it’s diminishing all the time.”

“What we’re trying to preserve, as the working waterfront group, is an infrastructure for fishermen,” Coppersmith said. “Groundfish are coming back. Lobsters are a good sustainable fishery.”

But wharf owners pushed back, saying they see no justification for rolling back their ability to develop their property. Ken Macgowan, who owns Custom House Wharf, said the current rules, which originally had the support of the fishing community, are working well.

“That zoning we did eight or nine years ago was totally approved by all parties involved and all of a sudden they want more,” Macgowan said of the fishermen. “They’re bringing nothing to the table. As a property owner, I feel like we aren’t being heard anymore.”

In a statement to the Press Herald on Friday, Bateman described the changes as a “big step backward.” He said the city will lose its ability to generate much-needed tax revenue to invest into the waterfront.

“These proposals are cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Bateman said.

Development along the waterfront was essentially halted in the 1980s. After Chandler’s Wharf condominiums were built, city residents approved a citizen’s initiative to protect the working waterfront.

Those rules remained largely in place until 2010, with the council loosening restrictions 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, such as 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 amendments presented Tuesday would eliminate contract and conditional zoning within the district. That provision may have allowed a hotel in the overlay zoner. And Needelman said it was feeding real estate speculation, which could put upward pressure on rents and property taxes.

Needelman said the most surprising recommendation was to prohibit restaurants and retail stores from opening on the piers, though a restaurant or retail operation ancillary to a permitted use may still be allowed. He said in an interview Friday that Scales restaurant, King’s Head gastropub and the Luke’s Lobster restaurants would not have been permitted under the proposed zoning.

Staff is also considering shrinking the Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone and renaming it the Commercial Street Overlay Zone. The current overlay zone generally runs 150 feet from Commercial Street, except along Long, Fishermen’s, Widgery and Union wharves, where it expands to 500 feet.

Staff is recommending reducing the overlay zone to 125 feet throughout most of the zone, including Fishermen’s, Widgery, Chandler’s and Union wharves. And staff proposed reducing it to 300 feet along Long Wharf.

Two affected pier owners questioned the changes.

“They’re being touted as insignificant, but they are anything but,” Bateman said Friday. “These are the last available developable properties adjacent to the Old Port. That’s why the zone was created in the first place.”

Steve DiMillo, whose family owns Long Wharf, questioned the move at Tuesday’s meeting. “I just haven’t seen an argument from the other side about why those distances should be changed.”

Needelman noted that the line was previously negotiated with local landowners. He said the change would better ensure that development within the overlay zone is oriented toward and closer to Commercial Street, which was the original intent, and ease pressure on the piers.

Staff is also recommending extending the period of time a pier owner must market available space on wharves to marine tenants. Currently wharf space must be advertised for 60 days to marine tenants before the owner can lease it to a non-marine use, but the proposal would extend that 180 days.

Meanwhile, other efforts are underway to address parking and traffic congestion. The city is working with a consultant on a master plan for traffic along Commercial Street. Needelman said Friday that recommendations would likely be brought forward in the coming weeks.

And Needelman said Tuesday that the city is working on freeing up more parking for fishermen. Those options include freeing up spaces on the city-run Portland Pier or the city-owned Angelo’s Acre, which is also one of two sites being considered for a new homeless shelter.

Needelman said there have been some new commercial parking spaces created within the waterfront zone in violation of zoning. The city is working to identify those spaces and to come up with a plan to open them up to commercial fishermen and employees of marine-dependent uses.

 


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