Business owner wants to reopen restaurant
PORTLAND — The owner of the Comedy Connection and Porthole restaurant wants to reopen the former Boone’s Restaurant space on Chandler’s Wharf, but is meeting resistance from the city in a new challenge to waterfront zoning rules.
Oliver Keithly leased the space that housed the former fish fry in November 2005. It is next door to the other two businesses he owns on the wharf and it operated as a restaurant until October 2005, according to Keithly’s attorney, Jim Cloutier.
Renovations and then safety issues with the wharf delayed opening of the proposed Harbor’s Edge. When Keithly was ready to open in the the summer of 2008, the city’s zoning administrator determined that the business could not be re-opened.
Zoning Administrator Marge Schmuckel cited two reasons for the denial: that the space had lost its grandfathered right to function as a restaurant in a zone that does not allow that use on ground floor, and that the use had been changed from a restaurant to a “banquet function enterprise” because the kitchen was removed.
The Waterfront Central Zoning district has strict rules governing non-marine uses on the first floor of properties. Keithly’s dilemma is one of several expected to come before city officials as wharf owners struggle to maintain their properties in light of the quickly shrinking “working waterfront” the zoning was originally drafted to protect.
On Wednesday, the City Council’s Community Development Committee is scheduled to hear from Great Maine Wharf owner Eric Cianchette about his plans to build a hotel on his pier. Although not planned for the first floor, hotels are not allowed in the Waterfront Central Zone. Last month, Joe Malone, who is advising Cianchette on the project, said the developer wants to get assurance from the council that the project could get a contract zone before spending money to go through an uncertain Planning Board review.
Similarly, Keithly went before the Planning Board on Tuesday to discuss a text amendment to the city’s current nonconforming uses rules. The normal route when being denied by the zoning administrator would be to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals. But Cloutier, Keithly’s attorney, said that could take two years because the ZBA’s decision, positive or negative, can be appealed to the courts.
The struggle of property owners in the Waterfront Central Zone had been going on for years, as they have lost fishing industry-related business while facing costly maintenance issues involving the upkeep of their wharves. Their struggle is expected to spur a review of the Waterfront Central Zone.
Cianchette is not the only wharf owner scheduled to appear before the CDC Wednesday. A group of Waterfront Central Zone property owners are also on the agenda to present proposed zoning amendments. Those property owners are expected to ask the council to consider relaxing the “marine and commercial use” requirement for ground floors, calling the current zoning unrealistic because of the continued loss of the fishing industry. Leniency for current parking restrictions and for less costly, time-consuming city and state regulations regarding replacement of underwater pilings and supports are also on the property owners’ list.
The group, which includes 11 wharf owners, made it clear in its letter to the council that it does not support allowing residential/condominium uses on wharves. That use was banned in a 1980s referendum.
Keithly’s requested amendment is expected to go before the Planning Board for a vote in March. The Planning Board acts in an advisory capacity to the City Council for zoning amendments, so the council will have the final word.
The proposed amendment basically relaxes time constraints on discontinuance of nonconforming use. Currently, a space can be closed up to 12 months before losing its grandfathered rights to operate.
Cloutier cited inspections, construction permits, liquor license extensions and other city documents showing Keithly was for the past 3 1/2 years intent on reopening. He also said Keithly had spent more than $300,000 on the space since 2005.
The CDC meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Room 209 at City Hall.