Portland pier owners explore public-access trail; proposal to relax waterfront zoning moves forward

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PORTLAND — A proposal by a group of pier owners to relax zoning along the waterfront is expected to go before the City Council this summer.

About a dozen pier owners in the Waterfront Central Zone, which includes the wharves from Maine Wharf to Deakes Wharf, have been working with city staff since February 2009 to craft language that would allow more non-marine use on the water side of Commercial Street and on wharves. The pier owners hired city staff to help them with the proposal.

The pier owners say current zoning restrictions are harming their ability to rent space and maintain their property. They are not proposing allowing residential use on piers.

The Planning Board began considering the proposed changes earlier this year and held two public forums in March. Those forums informed the board and the pier owners that the public wants more access to the waterfront along Commercial Street.

At a meeting Tuesday, a local architect presented a sketch of a waterfront walking trail to accomplish that goal.

Buell Heminway has created a conceptual map of a walking trail that would lead the public to points on piers throughout the zone. Some of those spots, such as the trail on Chandler’s Wharf, are already open to public access but are hard to find, Heminway said.

Some pier owners have also agreed to allow restricted access to their piers, including Portland Pier, Union Wharf, Widgery Wharf and Merrill’s Wharf.

“They would be easily accessible without disrupting work,” Heminway said. He is also proposing some visitor services be added on Commercial Street, since there is a lack of public bathrooms and information kiosks.

The trail is still a work in progress, and pier owners will have to work on liability issues before it can become a reality.

The Planning Board Tuesday also received a detailed report from City Planner Bill Needelman on business use and employment in the central waterfront.

Needelman gathered information from each of the 17 property owners in the zone on businesses, vessels and employment.

The report found that of the 128 businesses currently in the zone, 61 percent are marine businesses. About half of those marine businesses are in the fishing industry.

Of the non-marine businesses, 58 percent are offices and 22 percent are restaurants.

There are 394 boats berthed in the central waterfront zone. Of those, 141 are commercial fishing boats and the majority – 100 of them – are lobstering vessels.

Restaurants employ a majority of the workers at non-marine businesses in the zone. Of the 678 full-time and seasonal jobs, 66 percent were in restaurants.

Ground fishing and related businesses are the biggest employment sector in the zone, despite that industry’s recent decline. Lobstering is the second largest employer.

The Planning Board is grappling with a proposal from the Waterfront Central Zone property owners that would relax zoning rules. Some major changes proposed include allowing some non-marine use on the first floor of buildings on piers, and allowing buildings along Commercial Street to extend 150 toward the water instead of 100 feet. Those buildings are already allowed to have non-marine uses on the first floor.

“I see very little possibility of a revival of groundfishing in this port,” Dick Ingalls told the board. Ingalls, who is working with the pier owners, said restrictions on how many hours commercial fishermen can spend at sea and where they can go have had a negative impact on the industry in Portland. New state restrictions on when pier owners can drive piles and dredge are also making it difficult for property owners to maintain their piers.

The pier owners had originally proposed allowing 50 percent of berthing alongside piers to be occupied by non-commercial vessels. They have changed that to 100 feet of the pier.

Staff is expected to recommend that the Planning Board include in its recommendation to the City Council stipulations that would prohibit subdivision of waterfront property by separating piers from land. They are also expected to recommend rules that would make sure new buildings are built close to Commercial Street with minimal parking in the front.

The board meets again in a workshop on May 25 to discuss the zoning changes, and then will hold a public hearing and vote on a recommendation to the City Council in June. The council has authority over zoning.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net