A package of zoning amendments meant to protect Portland’s working waterfront is headed to the City Council for approval, but without a provision sought by fisherman to reduce the area that can be redeveloped for non-marine uses.

The Portland Planning Board’s recommendation to the City Council, which will have final say, includes a series of changes to land use rules that were widely supported by a group of pier owners and fisherman who have been meeting since January to address concerns about over-development and traffic along the waterfront.

The recommended changes include prohibiting restaurant and retail stores from opening up on the outer ends of the piers and removing an allowance for contract or conditional zoning that could have allowed hotels. The planning board voted 4-2 in favor of those Tuesday.

However, the planning board did not recommend moving forward with the most contentious piece of the rezoning package presented by city staff. That change would reduce the amount of land on the waterside of Commercial Street that is available for non-marine development, which is generally more lucrative than fishing related uses.

Fishermen and working waterfront advocates supported shrinking that area, but pier owners intensely opposed the change, saying it would cripple their ability to generate revenue needed to maintain the aging piers.

“I don’t feel like I have enough information to make an informed decision on that,” said board member David Silk, one of the four members who supported the other amendments. “At the end of the day, maybe that’s a political decision about where you draw the line.”


Fishermen had supported the city’s recommendation to reduce the so-called Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone on Commercial Street from 150 feet to 125 feet. It also would have drastically shrunk portions of existing surface parking lots that could be redeveloped for non-marine uses at Fishermen’s, Widgery, Chandler’s and Union wharves from 500 feet to 125 feet. And it would have reduced the area at Long Wharf – where DiMillo’s Restaurant is located – from 500 feet to 300 feet.

While fishermen argued the change would keep them from getting squeezed out of the waterfront zone, affected pier owners said it could eliminate $3.4 million in potential revenue for pier repairs and $1.2 million in potential tax revenue for the city.

City officials disputed the property owners’ claims, saying any loss of revenue from redevelopment could be made up by the city through a separate tax sheltering program. The Waterfront Tax Increment Financing District, or TIF, sets aside property taxes from new development to pay for waterfront infrastructure and dredging. Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, has said that the original boundary of the overlay zone was a compromise between pier owners and fisherman, and wasn’t based on any firm data.

Despite the reassurances of city staff, planning board members voted Tuesday to eliminate the reduction in the size of the overlay zone, saying they didn’t have enough information about the economic impact to justify the move. The City Council could decide to restore that proposal to the package, but the backing of the planning board would have made it more likely to be adopted.

Fishermen reacted Wednesday by saying they were disappointed by the planning board’s recommendation, but hold out hope that they can change the minds of city councilors to reduce the non-marine use overlay zone from 150 to 125 feet.

Willis Spear of Yarmouth has been fishing for more than 50 years and said that while 25 feet may not seem consequential, the reduction will help slow development and serve to protect what is left of Portland’s working waterfront.


“That would have given marine uses their only protection from the commercial creep at the end of a wharf,” said Spear, who fishes out of Portland.

“It’s a wharf and there is an end to it. There are sides and there is no other place to go,” he said. “You can’t put two competing objects in the same place.”

Spear was disappointed by the planning board’s vote.

“I think the planning board looked at this as a tax value issue rather than protecting the fishermen from non-marine development,” he said.

Portland fisherman Keith Lane said the fishing community was caught off guard by the planning board’s recommendation. Lane thought that the city, fishermen and wharf owners had reached a consensus on a 125-foot non-marine use overlay zone.

“We came to a compromise over the winter,” Lane said. “The fishermen thought everyone was in agreement.”


But Lane said wharf owners changed their minds. Now all the fishermen can do is wait to see how the City Council resolves the dispute.

“The planning board is just a step in the road,” he said.

The city was forced into re-examining zoning along the working waterfront after fisherman and activists began collecting signatures for a citywide referendum to protect the working waterfront. They argued that the ongoing development boom of hotels and Portland’s growing popularity as tourist destination is making it harder to access and work on the waterfront.

The council approved a six-month moratorium in December on new construction along the waterside of Commercial Street, from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal, while the Waterfront Working Group met to come up with solutions. That moratorium expires on June 15.

Developer David Bateman ended up dropping a 93-room hotel from his planned redevelopment of Fishermen’s Pier – a proposal that ignited the referendum drive. And fishermen dropped their referendum drive to work with the city, though they have raised the possibility of starting over if they’re not satisfied with the city’s actions.

The city also is studying traffic issues along Commercial Street and plans to bring forward recommendations to alleviate congestion. It’s also looking to find additional parking along the waterfront for fishermen, officials have said.


The working waterfront has long been a point of pride – and contention – in Portland.

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.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: