Balance sought to protect working waterfront during Portland Harbor rezoning

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PORTLAND — About 100 people turned out Tuesday night to hear a panel of marine industry and tourism experts discuss the competing needs facing the heart of Portland’s waterfront.

The panel discussion is the first of two meetings scheduled for this week, as the Planning Board considers changes to zoning for the Central Waterfront, including relaxing prohibitions on non-marine related uses on wharves.

The current zoning was for the most part adopted in 1993.

The zoning changes are being proposed by a group of wharf owners who say the decline in the fishing industry over the past 20 years has left them with dilapidated buildings and wharves and little opportunity to generate revenue.

Burt Jongerden, the general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said federal regulations from the New England Marine Fisheries Council, combined with incentives Massachusetts offers to fishermen, have resulted in a decline in the number of fishing vessels using Portland as a home port and a decline in the amount of fish caught.

Jongerden said that in the late 90s, 30 million pounds of groundfish went through the exchange annually, at its peak. Rules by the Fisheries Council over the years put additional limits on how much fish could be caught and how many days fishermen could be at sea. In 2009, 6.4 million pounds of fish were landed.

“Lots of boats have migrated to New Gloucester,” said Jorgerden. Massachuesetts, he said, offers incentives to fishermen including not charging them tax on diesel fuel and allowing them to keep up to 100 “by-catch” lobsters a day. Maine has a trap-only law regulating lobster fishing.

The lobster industry in Portland Harbor, by contrast, is doing well according to Jongerden.

“The lobster industry is pretty vibrant in the city of Portland, there are about 70 to 80 boats in the harbor,” he said.

Charlie Poole, the owner of Union Wharf, is one of the property owners seeking zoning changes. He was a member of the panel and said the goal is not to displace marine industry businesses, but to add non-marine businesses that would generate revenue to pay for maintenance of Portland’s wharves.

“If the Central Waterfront Zone can earn a sufficient income, we can have a successful waterfront,” said Poole.

The wharf owners hired city of Portland Planning Department staff to help draft the proposed zoning changes. Highlights of those changes include allowing up to 50 percent non-marine tenants on first floors of buildings in the zone. Currently, no non-marine use is allowed on first floors.

The proposal would also allow buildings in the zone, along Commercial Street, to extend 150 feet back, instead of the current 100-foot rule. Poole said that change could help properties such as the Cumberland Cold Storage warehouse.

“That building could really use some help,” said Poole.

The new zoning would allow waterfront property owners to provide off-site parking, as opposed to the current parking requirements demanding on-site spots.

Current zoning allows for about 50 feet of berthing on a pier for non-marine vessels. The proposed zoning would allow up to 50 percent non-marine commercial vessel berthing.

Although the berthing would not allow for recreational boats, Tom Martin, a Portland lobsterman and owner of “Lucky Catch” tours, said he and fellow lobstermen have reservations about allowing non-marine vessels berthing on the wharves without some sort of provision that berthing priority would go to fishing boats.

Barbara Whitten, the executive director of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitor Bureau, said boarded-up buildings on wharves and caved in roofs are not good for tourism. She said the waterfront should have some public access, while maintaining the working waterfront visitors want to see.

“The Dimillo’s pier is a good example,” said Whitten. She said a mix of retail, harbor tours, restaurants and a good view of the waterfront are important for drawing tourists.

“But, what we have is unique and we need to keep that authenticity,” she said.

While there was limited comment from the Planning Board and the public, a public forum scheduled for tonight, March 3, at 7 p.m. at the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall on Myrtle Street will focus almost exclusively on public input. Participants will be arranged in small discussions groups to discuss the proposed zoning changes.

The Planning Board will continue its review of the zoning change proposal in the coming months, and pass a recommendation along to the City Council.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or