Portland plays down fishing heritage to justify waterfront changes

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PORTLAND — City officials are downplaying the role of commercial fishing on the waterfront in an effort to convince the state to approve new zoning rules.

Proposed changes to the city’s waterfront zoning that would allow more non-marine uses are being reviewed by the shoreland zoning unit of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

The bureau, as well as other state agencies, have previously expressed concerns about the impact of the proposed amendments on commercial fishing.

The city on March 25 submitted a 269-page information packet justifying amendments to the Waterfront Central Zone, which includes properties between the Maine State Pier and the Portland International Marine Terminal.

The City Council approved the changes in December. They were presented as a way for pier owners to generate more revenue, which in turn would allow them to make repairs and improvements.

The amendments would create a Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone for new non-marine developments, with the exception of residences, within 150 feet of Commercial Street. It would expand permitted uses to include restaurants and retail stores.

Outside of the overlay zone, pier owners would be able to lease up to 45 percent of their first-floor space to non-marine uses, but only after aggressively and unsuccessfully marketing that space to marine uses.

The information submitted to the state is intended to address concerns raised by several agencies, including the DEP, the Department of Conservation’s submerged lands program and the Department of Marine Resources.

All three agencies expressed concern about allowing non-marine uses on the ground floor of piers that are supported by piles. Those areas give commercial vessels direct access to the water.

The departments expressed concern that the changes would displace Portland’s commercial fishing industry.

“DMR views the commercial fishing industry within Portland harbor as healthy and with great potential,” DMR Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said in a Dec. 13, 2010, letter to the DEP’s assistant shoreland zoning coordinator, Michael Morse. “We believe that the needs of area fishermen now and into the future would be seriously compromised by what is being proposed.”

Morse in turn sent a letter to city officials on Dec. 15, 2010, requesting more information to justify the city’s attempt to depart from the minimum requirements of the state’s Guidelines for Municipal Shoreland Zoning Ordinances.

The purpose of state shoreland rules is not only to protect water quality and wildlife habitat, but also to protect commercial fishing and maritime industries.

Morse said this week that the agency is concerned the proposed amendments will displace commercial fisherman by allowing non-marine uses on pile-supported portions of the piers.

“That pile-supported pier area is an area that is extremely vital for commercial fishing and maritime activities,” Morse said. “If we turn that into restaurants and law offices, where do … these (maritime) activities go?”

Morse, who will review Portland’s request, said he hasn’t seen the information the city has sent to the state.

Whether the concerns expressed under the administration of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci are shared by the current administration in Augusta is unclear.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has promised a more business-friendly attitude towards environmental regulations and appointed a former developer as DEP commissioner.

In last week’s radio address, LePage said the DEP “is conducting a thorough review of all existing rules and regulations to see where there is room to reduce burdens on businesses.”

The city originally expected changes on the waterfront zone to have taken effect in late January.

Morse said Portland’s planning and development director, Penny St. Louis, told him the city was deliberately waiting to submit its proposed changes until LePage had installed his DEP leadership team.

But St. Louis denied that assertion, saying the city needed more time to assemble the necessary information. She said she hopes the department will understand that Portland’s waterfront is unique from others in the state.

“The history of our waterfront is not commercial fishing,” St. Louis said. “The history of our waterfront is heavy industrial use and transportation modalities.”

The city highlighted that distinction in the documents it gave to the DEP. The city contends that fishing is often associated with Portland’s waterfront, but has never been a significant force.

St. Louis said many waterfront buildings are at the water’s edge, which diminishes the DEP’s concerns about water access, especially on pile-supported areas of the piers.

“Many of those buildings are built right up to the edge of the pier,” she said. “So that would be a hollow standard to have, because our buildings are already there.”

The city also noted that it is not proposing to add more non-commercial berthing along the piers.

DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said the agency received Portland’s submission on March 28 and has 45 days to issue a ruling.

DePoy-Warren said it will be up to Morse to approve or deny the changes, a decision that would also need the OK of the bureau director as a “formality.”

“I think (DEP) will recognize we’re doing no harm to our commercial fishing industry that is located on our waterfront with these regulations,” St. Louis said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecatser.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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