There has been a lot said lately about the challenges to Maine’s working waterfront. For most people, working waterfront conjures up thoughts of fishing vessels, hard-working men and women, seagulls and lobster rolls. While it’s true that working waterfront is part of Maine’s cultural identity, it’s also true that this important infrastructure is central to Maine’s economic future.

Public and private working waterfronts provide critical access to the water and support activities like storing, launching, building and repairing boats and loading and unloading catch and gear. Comprising a mere 20 miles of Maine’s 3,500 mile coastline, the working waterfront underpins a fishing industry that brings in $1 billion of harvest and creates thousands of jobs throughout the state, from wharf to plate. And it’s an industry under threat.

The threat comes in several forms, from rising sea levels that threaten infrastructure, to warming waters that change the types of species in our ocean, to regulations that protect endangered right whales, and rapid increases in demand for coastal properties. These threats put pressure on working waterfront businesses, and accelerate the long-term trend of converting property that is an economic lifeline into other noncommercial uses.

We now, however, have some hopeful news. A bill (L.D. 574) proposed by Rep. Morgan Rielly of Westbrook could expand protections for working waterfront property by giving land trusts the option to play a key role in efforts to preserve them. This bill will provide another important tool in ensuring the long-term viability of our working waterfronts.

Currently, the primary way to preserve working waterfront property is the state’s Working Waterfront Access Protection Program, funded by Land for Maine’s Future and implemented in partnership with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Since 2008, this critical program has placed a working waterfront covenant on 34 properties across the coast. However, the WWAPP is constrained by the availability of public funding and cannot respond in a fast-paced real estate market.

L.D. 574 would breathe new life into efforts to support working waterfronts by making the covenant a more widespread tool. Currently, only organizations with very specific language in their mission can hold working waterfront covenants. In fact the current law is so specific that, with the exception of governmental agencies, it hasn’t been utilized. Broadening the definition of entities allowed to hold a working waterfront covenant to include land trusts would significantly expand the pool of potential partners who can hold a covenant and provide great benefits for our coast.

Coastal land trusts like Midcoast Conservancy are natural partners in this work. They are experienced in bringing partners and resources together to conserve places that have high value to local communities. This experience is particularly important in urgent situations where multiple parties must move quickly to close a deal. Another benefit of this bill is that working waterfront owners may prefer partnering with their local land trusts, rather than a state agency, to hold the development rights for their property.

For over 20 years, the Island Institute has been working with coastal communities, fishermen and other concerned partners to identify more solutions for our working waterfront.  This is where coastal land trusts are critical. Their experience in using conservation easements for land conservation functions in much the same way as working waterfront covenants – in effect, a legal partnership that protects public conservation values while supporting landowners’ interests in working waterfronts.

This framework for conservation has provided tremendous public benefits to Maine while allowing private landowners to live, work on, and remain connected to treasured properties. As the composition of our coastal communities and the status of our fisheries continue to change, passing this legislation will be essential to sustaining Maine’s fishing industry well into the future.

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