On the waterfront: Portland zoning fight takes shape

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PORTLAND — Is it a restoration of guidelines to preserve the city’s marine traditions and industry?

Or is it a Commercial Street catastrophe waiting to be unleashed?

That’s how opposing sides are painting a proposed referendum question that would essentially restore the original language and restrictions of waterfront zoning passed by voters in May 1987. If approved, the amendments would be retroactive to Oct. 30, 2018.

“They have been chipping away protections, it is a loose, fluid, insecure situation,” fisherman Keith Lane said Nov. 30 about the need to stop waterfront development.

“The referendum is an H-bomb, really a measure of last resort,” Mark Robinson, representing developer David Bateman, countered Monday. “We are really hoping the right conversations can take place before the H-bomb gets dropped.”

A petition drive in support of placing the referendum on a future city ballot will get a boost Dec. 16 at the Kings Head Pub on Commercial Street, when the public is invited to meet fishermen from 3-7 p.m. and registered voters are invited to sign the petition; 1,500 signatures are needed to place the question in front of the City Council for enactment or placement on a ballot.

Robinson, meanwhile, said Bateman is hoping to meet with fishermen and people from other segments of the marine industry to explain the proposed development seen as the focal point for the ordinance amendments.

“This completely caught us completely off guard, we didn’t know it was coming,” Robinson said. “Quite to the contrary, (Bateman’s) project depends on and will do everything it can to keep the fishermen exactly where they are.”

The planned 93-room hotel at 184 Commercial St., on the harbor side of the street, would sit in an overlay zone that allows conditional uses such as hotels, offices and residential development voters banned in the original referendum because they do not specifically relate to marine uses.

The conditional use would have to be approved by the City Council.

The overlay is a part of zoning amendments made after the 1987 zoning had been in effect for five years. By law, it could not be altered before that because it was a referendum.

“You can’t have two objects occupying the same space, it does not work,” Yarmouth resident Willis Spear Jr., who has been fishing out of Portland for about 50 years, said Nov. 29. “The wharves still produce seafood or support lobster boats, they have not gone completely fallow.”

The zoning referendum would eliminate the overlay zone and any contract zoning that allows prohibited uses on specific lots.

The referendum would also require new or expanded parking facilities to set aside 50 percent of spaces for Casco Bay island residents “at nominal rates set by the City Council.”

Additionally, parking spaces in lots and garages set aside for “uses in non-waterfront zones” would be eliminated within three years.

If the recent past is any indication, developers are likely to spend whatever it takes to protect their interests.

Opponents of the 2015 referendum that sought to derail development of the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. outspent supporters by $100,000. Last year, opponents of a referendum regulating rental increases in some city housing spent more than $285,000 to defeat the question.

The fishermen are making their case in a video called “12 Little Wharves,” which can be viewed at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association website,  https://bit.ly/2zBUNqN.

Although Robinson said the hotel and marine dispatch center will help support marine industries and help alleviate pedestrian congestion on Commercial Street, the argument is apparently falling on deaf ears.

“All promises made by developers are broken,” Spear said.

His concern is as much about continuing a way of life as an industry.

“It is hard to shake it once you are around it and your family is into it,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Working spaces and parking spaces are at a premium on Portland’s waterfront, where watermen are organizing a petition drive to repeal zoning allowances seen as a threat to their industry.

Willis Spear Jr. stacks a lobster trap handed up by Keith Lane on Nov. 30 at Custom House Wharf in Portland. Both have worked on the water more than 50 years and said threats to their way of life are greater than ever.

Watermen Willis Spear Jr. and Keith Lane said Nov. 30 they want the zoning in three waterfront areas in Portland to revert to the 1987 rules enacted by voters. “They have been chipping away protections,” Lane said.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.