Wharf owners seek relief through zoning
PORTLAND — With their piers in disrepair and their options for leasing and redevelopment limited, about a dozen pier owners have convinced the city to consider waterfront zoning changes.
The Waterfront Central Zone captures a majority of the piers and wharves along the harbor and has strict zoning laws in place to protect the working waterfront. But as the fishing industry continues to shrink in Portland, more and more wharf properties are dealing with vacancies and crumbling infrastructure.
"It's to our benefit to rent to commercial tenants, or marine tenants," said Steve DiMillo, the owner of Long Wharf and a member of the property owners' group. "But when there aren't any, we need some flexibility."
DiMillo's wharf is in good shape, he said, because his family was able to develop the wharf before restrictions governing non-marine uses were put in place. Still, he said he'd like to be able to develop the vast parking lot at Long Wharf someday, so working for zoning changes is in his best interest, too.
Currently, uses that are not water-dependent are not allowed on the ground floor of wharves in the Waterfront Central Zone.
Wharf owners have said they are not looking for permission to build residential structures on piers. They are also committed to saving the perimeter of their piers for docking space.
DiMillo said the wharf owners will work with city Planning Department staff to craft proposed changes, although he wasn't sure whether those changes would be made through text amendments or a complete rewriting of the zoning. He said the wharf owners will meet again, too, to clarify what they want.
The WCZ zoning was reviewed and altered in 2006 by a task force. Changes included allowing more non-marine use on upper floors of waterfront buildings, a relaxation of setbacks in the middle of the zone and the so-called waterfront diner use, which allows non-marine-dependent businesses like RiRa and Becky's.
Barbara Vestal, a member of the 2006 WCZ committee, said the state was involved with the 2006 review, and there is an entirely different set of state regulations in place governing waterfront properties.
"I think the pier owners are entitled to approach the Planning Board with a proposal for rezoning," Vestal said. "I do have concerns about the pier owners working directly with city staff." She said she hopes the process will be transparent.
The City Council's Community Development Committee on Feb. 11 instructed the planning staff to work with the pier owners to craft language for the WCZ changes.
DiMillo said his group wants to work with other interested parties, but also wants to put at the forefront the critical need of wharf owners to be able to make changes that will keep their properties viable. He said he had a hard time trying to figure out what some of the WCZ regulations are protecting.
"What are we saving it all for?" he said. "There's no commercial fishing left. Or very little."
In addition to relaxing some use restrictions, the wharf owners are asking the city for parking requirement leniency for non-marine uses and for help in getting cumbersome federal dredging regulations changed. DiMillo said several wharves – including those owned by the city – are filling in with silt, but the cost and time associated with getting permits for dredging contaminated soil prevents owners from acting.
It is unclear when any proposed zoning changes might be reviewed by the council.