State agency opposes Portland waterfront zoning changes

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PORTLAND — Beginning Jan. 20, pier owners may have the flexibility to allow more non-marine tenants in waterfront buildings.

But the change in rules still must be approved by the state and one agency is recommending the city’s request be denied.

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said the loosened waterfront rules will still protect fisherman and continue to emphasize Portland’s working waterfront.

“The focus is to first try to get marine uses,” Mavodones said. “Unfortunately, now there aren’t enough to go around.”

The City Council last week approved a zoning overhaul for the Waterfront Central Zone, which stretches from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the changes still need to be approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In a Dec. 13 letter to the DEP, David Etnier, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, advocated against the changes, saying that allowing non-marine uses will displace marine businesses.

Etnier expressed concern that the changes are being made in a down economy and before federal efforts to revitalize ground fishing have taken effect, including $3.3 million to implement a new sector-based management system.

“We believe that the needs of area fishermen now and into the future would be seriously compromised by what is being proposed,” Etnier wrote.

But Mavodones said the changes, approved by a 7-2 vote on Dec. 20 after nearly two years of work, will compel the DEP to sign off on the changes, which have the support of fisherman and pier owners.

“Hopefully, they will see (the vote) as a strong mandate from elected officials in Portland and move forward with this pretty quickly,” the mayor said.

The approval was the culmination of months of discussion and committee work between the city and a dozen pier owners, who advocated for relaxed regulations so they can generate more income and keep up with pier maintenance.

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

Outside of the overlay zone, pier owners can 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, Mavodones said.

While most of the recommendations received unanimous support from the council, Councilors Kevin Donoghue, David Marshall and John Anton cast dissenting votes over first-floor non-marine uses outside the overlay zone.

When that failed, Donoghue and Marshall tried, also unsuccessfully, to cap non-marine uses at 25 percent, which is comparable to current vacancy rates.

The trio also tried unsuccessfully to expand the amount of time pier owners are required to market their vacant first-floor space to marine-related businesses from 60 days to six months.

Donoghue said he supported establishing the overlay zone, since it links developments over $250,000 to pier infrastructure investment. But that linkage is not included outside the overlay zone, which he said encourages displacement of marine uses.

“That yields nothing that goes to address the apparent problem with marine infrastructure,” Donoghue said. “Wittingly or not, the City Council affirmed the policy of displacement.”

Donoghue pointed to Custom House Wharf, where non-marine uses were grandfathered before more restrictive policies took place, as evidence that having tenants does not mean more investment goes into deteriorating piers.

“I don’t think there’s a more neglected pier on the Portland waterfront,” he said.

Marshall said he voted against the changes because they went “too far, too fast.” He also questioned the compatibility of marine and non-marine uses.

“If I’m on a dock eating at an outdoor restaurant, I’m not going to want to smell the fish intestines while I’m having my meal,” he said.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she believes the changes strike the right balance between uses, noting that neither fishermen nor pier owners were completely satisfied with the new rules.

“I guess that’s when you know you’ve got a pretty good piece of legislation,” Leeman said. “Overall, it doesn’t do any damage to the working waterfront, which I think we all want to keep at the forefront of our decision making, because that is a huge asset to the city.”

While some councilors were concerned the loosened waterfront rules would displace marine businesses, Leeman said that much of the space in waterfront buildings is currently vacant.

If owners want to put a non-marine tenant into a space that was previously leased to a marine business, Leeman said the pier owner must go through a formal change-of-use process.

If a non-marine tenant leasing space outside of the non-marine use zone leaves, Mavodones said that space must again be marketed first to marine tenants.

“They didn’t get a freebie,” Leeman said. “It allows pier owners some flexibility to bring some revenue in for the purpose of keeping those piers maintained, which is very expensive.”

Mavodones said the city will receive a 5 percent payment of any development within the overlay zone that exceeds $250,000. That money will be placed into a infrastructure loan account, he said.

Mavodones said the council is expecting to receive a report from city staff by April outlining the current uses on the affected piers.

The council will then receive an annual report that details the change in tenant base, as well as the investments that have been made into the piers, Mavodones said.

“That’s so we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence,” he said. “As councilors in the future look at this, they will have some good data to reflect upon.”

Capital improvements

In other business, the council also approved a nearly $10 million Capital Improvement Program.

The bond-funded budget includes $200,000 for a new parking meter pilot program.

The new meters, called “pay and display,” will allow drivers to pay for parking using a debit or credit card at designated kiosks. Drivers will receive receipts to display on their dashboards.

The budget also includes $3 million for a new central kitchen for the School Department.

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said the schools are negotiating to purchase and retrofit a building on the peninsula. It would replace a circa-1926 Reed Street building in a residential zone.

The budget also includes $1 million in paving projects, $505,000 in local matching funds for state-funded transportation projects and $400,000 for the second phase of City Hall Plaza repairs.

Another $300,000 was included for maintenance of the Maine State Pier.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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