People love to come down to Commercial Street in Portland to get the feel of a real working waterfront. And developers have responded with nearby hotels and office buildings that make the experience more available to visitors and locals than ever before. But lately it seems like the waterfront is getting loved to death.

Congestion, especially in the summer, is threatening the economic viability of lobstermen and others who make their livings on piers that can be accessed only from what’s become Portland’s busiest street. It’s not just a problem for them.  Without the fishing industry, the waterfront would lose its appeal and Portland would lose its identity.

That’s why we support the package of zoning changes produced by the Waterfront Working Group, which was created in January to address the city’s development pressure on its signature industry. The waterfront is small – too small for everyone who does business there to do everything they’d like. But when balancing competing needs, it’s important for the city to reaffirm that the commercial fishing industry gets top priority in this much-coveted space.

And we hope the City Council will support the proposed changes as drafted by the working group, not the weakened version recommended by the Planning Board.

This is a problem that comes from success. Attraction to Commercial Street is likely the result of the city’s effort to preserve its working waterfront, starting with a landslide referendum vote in 1987 to halt development while protective zoning could be put in place. The zoning was last revised in 2010 to give pier owners some flexibility to build along the Commercial Street side of their properties, creating a zone where the usual water-dependent requirements do not apply.

Although no developments have been built in that zone since its creation, there have been enough major projects nearby to put the fishermen under more pressure than ever. The prospect of a large project that brings more people and cars to the waterfront convinced most members of the working group that the unrestricted area should be reduced. A majority of the Planning Board disagreed, saying that they saw no evidence of a problem that a smaller zone would fix.


But when you are talking about such a confined and intensively used part of the city, it would be better to prevent a problem than deal with it after it occurs. It wouldn’t take much to make an already bad situation intolerable.

The other reason we support the working group’s proposal is the way it was developed. After a developer proposed a project on Fisherman’s Wharf that would have included a hotel and parking garage, some fishermen circulated a petition to put another five-year moratorium before Portland voters. They had no trouble gathering the signatures, and they likely would have won at the polls. But they agreed to give a collaborative process a chance.

That kind of engagement is a much better way to make policy than a yes-or-no question on the ballot, and the City Council should reward their effort by not rewriting the deal they agreed to unless it would be absolutely necessary.

There is no simple way to balance the needs of so many different users on the waterfront. But this proposal nudges the scale in the right direction, and it should be given a chance to work.

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