Portland Planning Board urges relaxed waterfront zoning

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PORTLAND — More non-marine uses will be allowed on piers if the City Council adopts  Planning Board recommendations that include reconsideration of a 23-year-old ban on waterfront housing.

The board wants the City Council to support further study of allowing residences in the Waterfront Central Zone, which includes more than a dozen piers in the heart of the harbor.

The recommendation is likely to stir debate, since residential uses have not been allowed since passage of a citizen-initiated referendum to preserve the “working waterfront” in 1987.

The referendum led not only to a ban on residential development along the waterfront, but also to banning non-marine uses from the first floor of buildings on wharves.

But times have changed, at least for the commercial fishing industry, and pier owners more than a year ago proposed relaxing the zoning restrictions.

The owners said that in order to maintain their piers, many of which are in need of costly repairs, they must be able to generate revenue from non-marine businesses, including retail shops and restaurants.

The Central Waterfront Zone includes properties from Maine Wharf west to Deakes Wharf.

The Planning Board has met more than a dozen times during the past year and on Tuesday supported almost all of the pier owners’ proposals.

The recommendation includes allowing up to 50 percent non-marine use on the first floor of buildings, relaxing development restrictions along Commercial Street, allowing for more non-commercial berthing on wharves and easing parking requirements.

The pier owners had not asked for consideration of residential use, but the Portland Society of Architects lobbied the board to consider allowing living space along Commercial Street and several planners agreed it was a good idea.

Planning Board member David Silk said he did not see the difference between allowing residential units along Commercial Street and allowing retail and restaurants.

While board members said they were not prepared to change the actual text of the Waterfront Central Zoning on Tuesday night, they voted in favor of changing the proposed policy and asking the council to consider it.

The board also voted to send a recommendation to the council that it put in place a rule that would require owners invest in pier improvements when they profit from the relaxed zoning.

“I’d like to see reinvestment for pier maintenance,” Carol Morrissette said.

The board recommended to the council that view-corridor protection be part of the performance standards for development in the zone, even though the pier owners group asked it be deleted.

The proposed Waterfront Central Zone changes are scheduled to go before the council’s Community Development Committee at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 14. The full council takes up the issue Monday, July 19, at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.

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