Portland waterfront group to pick up its pace

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PORTLAND — Coming soon, and frequently, to City Hall: more Waterfront Working Group meetings.

With the June 15 expiration of the moratorium on waterfront development approaching, the 10-member group agreed March 28 to meet weekly through the middle of next month.

First up, at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 4, is what city Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman hoped will be the last meeting to determine zoning revisions in the Waterfront Central Zone extending along the water side of Commercial Street.

Needelman noted the group will not be in complete agreement as it progresses, although it is now more than halfway through a checklist of items on land use to preserve marine uses in the zone.

“We will do our best to reflect the full range of opinions that comes from this group,” he said.

A key area of disagreement may be what to do about the overlay zone created in 2010 to allow more non-marine development closer to Commercial Street. The city still favors eliminating the option for applicants to seek conditional approvals for prohibited uses including hotels and residences, according to a Feb. 4 memo.

On March 28, Needelman said any possible residential conditional use should be removed, as the city has already fielded requests from boat owners to use vessels as short-term rentals.

City staff has also recommended reducing the size of the overlay zone, which mostly extends 150 feet back from Commercial Street, but widens to 500 feet on Union, Fishermen’s and Long wharves.

Pier owners have not supported altering the overlay zone, while lobstermen have.

“Anytime there is a nonmarine use on a wharf it diminishes what we do,” lobsterman Willis Spear said at the meeting.

The group may not seek to amend WCZ rules requiring 55 percent of first-floor spaces not in the overlay zone be used for marine purposes, where increasing the proportion to 70 percent had been discussed.

The new zoning is targeted for an April 23 Planning Board workshop, with Planning Board recommendations to councilors coming May 14. A City Council hearing and vote on the zoning could occur June 3.

Common accord between lobstermen and pier owners has been found when it comes to parking and the congestion on Commercial Street; those are considered top priorities.

While parking is planned to be the entire agenda of the April 11 meeting, lobsterman Keith Lane and Union Wharf owner Charlie Poole agreed there should be no parking allowed for nonmarine uses outside the overlay zone, toward the ends of the piers.

Needelman has noted municipal enforcement is challenging.

“Parking rules are also wickedly difficult to enforce on private properties where the City has no authority to ticket or tow,” he said in a Feb. 4 memo. “How does one determine if a car is associated with a marine use?”

Ultimately, city staff would like to create an operations and access management plan for development to be part of any site plan review.

City Planner Matt Grooms said the plan would also require developers to show “proposed use accommodates reasonable access for pedestrians, vehicles and freight transfer to and from berthed vessels.”

The group will likely take April 18 off, but will otherwise meet weekly until May 16, when it is expected to discuss the Planning Board zoning recommendations ahead of a May 20 first reading by city councilors.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The space squeeze on Custom House Wharf in Portland on March 28, where a truck unloads at Harbor Fish Market while another passes on its way to the end of the pier.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.