Western waterfront zoning plan heads to Portland council vote

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PORTLAND — A request to rezone land along West Commercial Street, which is opposed by some West End residents, is scheduled for a public hearing and City Council vote on Wednesday, Sept. 6.

The city request for the Waterfront Port Development Zone will be part of a crowded agenda that also includes hearings and votes on new zoning designed to create affordable housing opportunities, as well as placing two citizen initiative questions on the Nov. 7 ballot.

“The current process has been catalyzed by a request for proposals issued by the Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Port Authority to find a developer of cold storage at the International Marine Terminal near the Casco Bay Bridge,” city Planning Director Jeff Levine noted in an Aug. 10 memo.

The new zoning regulations for the area of land extending west of the Casco Bay Bridge to Cassidy Point are intended to bring uniformity and encourage economic development in the last section of Portland Harbor that can be developed as a working waterfront.

The zoning changes were unanimously endorsed by the Planning Board July 18. Board members found the zoning revisions consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

West End neighbors have objected since the zoning changes were first proposed almost a year ago, concerned mostly that a planned cold storage warehouse as part of the operations at the International Marine Terminal will block harbor views and add to the noise, congestion and light pollution that have come with the city’s expanded container ship business.

The new zoning creates four areas where building heights can range from 50 feet to 60 feet, with conditional uses allowing heights of 75 feet if set at least 100 feet south of West Commercial Street, or on Cassidy Point. The zoning changes also add cold storage as a permitted conditional use.

The building heights are considered hard caps, that include rooftop mechanical systems in the height measurements. The zoning along West Commercial Street would also require 90-foot view corridors between buildings.

In August 2015, the MDOT and Maine Port Authority selected Americold as the builder of the cold storage facility needed to accommodate incoming and outgoing freight from container ships using the terminal.

The Icelandic company Eimskip centered its continental operations at the terminal beginning in 2013, and the state also plans to improve pier facilities and add a second crane to double capacity. A rail network has also been improved to link the freight distribution.

City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell and Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman have said the revisions are needed as West Commercial Street is the last bastion available for a working waterfront, and the changes would allow companies, including Portland Yacht Services, the flexibility to expand.

Phineas Sprague Jr., owner of Portland Yacht Services, said revised height requirements would allow him to build a facility more conducive to servicing boats because it could be wider and not require a pitched roof that inhibits interior working space.

City officials also cite reports noting the expanded container service could reduce truck traffic and fossil fuel use. While trade and industry groups, including the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, have supported the zoning revisions, some neighbors have continued to object to the increased heights and consequences from expanded terminal activities.

Before the Planning Board’s recommendation in July, Danforth Street resident Laura Robinson asked for a hard height cap at 55 feet.

“(It) matches the average zoning across West Commercial Street and gives any owner of the site tremendous flexibility,” she said in a presentation that also demonstrated how the varied building heights would affect harbor views in the West End.

The council will also vote to send two proposed ordinances to the Nov. 7 ballot. One would cap rental adjustments at the annual rate of inflation and property tax increases. The second allows residents near proposed zoning changes to block the changes by filing written objections with the city.

Voters will also be asked to support bonds to repair and renovate either two or four city elementary schools.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland city councilors will vote Sept. 6 on new zoning to allow buildings as high as 75 feet off West Commercial Street.

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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.