Portland seeks public input on proposed changes to 'working waterfront'

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PORTLAND — The city wants public input on a request from a group of wharf owners to relax the rules governing the types of businesses allowed on the “working waterfront.”

Current zoning in the central waterfront zone, which includes properties on the harbor side of Commercial Street from Maine Wharf to Deaks Wharf, does not allow non-marine tenants on ground floors or berths for recreational boats. On-site parking must be provided for any new building on a pier.

The zoning, much of which is a result of a 1987 referendum where voters decided to ban hotels, residences and non-marine use on piers, was meant to protect the working waterfront.

But waterfront owners say they can’t afford to keep up maintenance of their wharves or attract tenants because of the decline of Portland’s  fishing industry in the past 20 years.

The waterfront property owner’s group hired city Planning Department staff to work with them on revised zoning for the central waterfront.

Proposed changes include allowing up to 50 percent of first floors to be used by retail shops, museums, restaurants, art galleries and other non-marine uses.

Developers who want to build new on a wharf would be allowed to include some off-site parking. Hotels and condominiums would still be prohibited, and parking for fishermen and other marine uses could not be displaced.

Rules regulating construction along the water side of Commercial Street would also change. Currently, buildings there can extend 100 feet back toward the water. The proposed zoning would allow buildings to extend 150 feet, provided they remain 25 feet or more from the water.

The Portland Planning Board is holding meetings March 2 and 3 to gather input from the public. The board will eventually send a recommendation to the City Council.

On Tuesday, March 2, at 7 p.m., in the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall on Myrtle Street, the topic of discussion is the changing waterfront. A panel will discuss the issues facing the ground-fishing, lobster-fishing and marine tourism industries.

The forum on Wednesday, March 3, also begins at 7 p.m. at the rehearsal hall. Participants will work in small groups to discuss the proposed zoning changes and key questions involving private piers, public policy and the future of the central waterfront zone.

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