Would you like to live next to a pig farm? Or a rock and gravel pit? Probably not — the smell or the noise would make your quality of life poor. That’s why municipalities use zoning districts, to determine the kinds of uses to which properties within a district can be put. It allows residential, industrial, and commercial uses to co-exist with others of their own kind, making all at least theoretically happy.
What happens, however, if multiple types of uses want to exist in the same zone? Then a town must decide what the preferred use for that zone should be through its zoning regulations. Portland made that decision about its Waterfront Central Zone, a mile-long section of the city bordered by Commercial Street and the harbor, back in 1987. It was conversion of Chandler’s Wharf’s into residential condominiums that lead to a citizen’s referendum asking Portland residents if they wanted to ensure that marine-related businesses were given preference in that zone. The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
Thirty years later, that designation has come under threat. New, large-scale residential and retail projects have been proposed that could alter the character of Portland’s waterfront forever. And the fishermen who have long called the waterfront home fear that they will be displaced for good.
The Waterfront Central Zone is home to the Portland Fish Pier, 14 private piers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the majority of the city’s commercial fishing fleet, the tourist excursion vessel fleet, and multiple marine and non-marine businesses. The Waterfront Central Zone regulations protect marine businesses, restricting non-marine-related businesses to the upper floors of buildings along Commercial Street.
In 2009, citing a need for increased revenues, eleven commercial pier owners in the zone asked the city to relax restrictions on development in order to increase income and maintain pier infrastructure. In 2011, the Portland City Council approved changes to the regulations, permitting expanded non-marine uses.
One of the key requirements of the amended regulations is that at least 55% of ground-floor space be reserved for marine uses for properties on the water side of Commercial Street. Forty-five percent of a building’s ground floor could have non-marine tenants, but only after the space was marketed to marine businesses for at least 60 days at a reasonable rate. Developers had to invest 5% of the overall cost for projects exceeding $250,000 in maintaining waterfront infrastructure, such as piers. At the same time a “Non-Marine-Use Overlay Zone” was established along Commercial Street which extends 150 feet toward the harbor. That overlay zone allows businesses not connected to the sea to operate on the harbor side of the street.
Since then artist lofts, office space and and nearly 50 other non-marine uses have sprung up in the zone. The law firm Pierce Atwood moved its office to an old warehouse next to the Portland Fish Pier in 2011. The city provided the warehouse owner a $2.8 million tax break to help pay for renovations before the move. Dropping Springs Bait moved its adjacent facility in part because the city asserted that it blocked emergency access to the office building; others believe it was because the smell of lobster bait offended the sensibilities of the lawyers.
One development project under consideration by the city’s planning department seems to clearly contradict the zoning requirements. In 2017, David Bateman, of Bateman Partners announced plans to build a four-story hotel with 96 rooms, restaurants, a four-story office building and parking garage at Fisherman’s Wharf. While offices and retail space are specifically allowed in the non-marine-use overlay zone, hotels are neither explicitly allowed nor prohibited. To construct the new buildings, Bateman had to seek a conditional rezoning, which he applied for in July, 2018.
Portland has seen a boom in hotel construction since 2013. Since then, 730 hotel rooms have been built, according to city records, and 400 additional rooms are anticipated by 2020. Construction will start this fall on the first phase of a new development at the old Rufus Deering Lumber Company property [on the side of Commercial Street away from the harbor] at the base of India Street, which will include a 157-room hotel and 89-unit condo building with first-floor retail spaces, and a parking garage for 154 vehicles plus a surface lot for an additional 56 vehicles. Future phases of the development would include 100 additional condos and about 22,000 square feet of commercial space.
In response to the proposed Bateman hotel development for Fisherman’s Wharf, concerned fishermen, such as Willis Spear and Greg Turner, and other city residents held a rally in 2017 protesting the project and what it heralded for the future of Portland’s waterfront. The event was organized by photographer Joanne Arnold, whose work has focused on the fishing activities along Commercial Street and the culture of Portland’s fishermen. The group has since held additional rallies against the numerous development projects planned for Commercial Street and has met with city councilors, the mayor and others to protest the Fishermen’s Wharf project specifically.
Turner, 59, has been fishing from Portland since 1978. Like many fishermen, he has gone shrimping, scalloping, groundfishing, even venturing to the Grand Banks when that fishery was opened. Now he lobsters and operates a small lobster pound at his home in Scarborough. “I tie up at Widgery Wharf. I rent a fish house there and three parking spaces. There’s about thirty boats there now. I have a boom to unload and load the boat,” Turner said. “Now they want to build a hotel at the end of the wharf.”
Turner believes that Portland’s goal is to make short-term gains by developing on both sides of Commercial Street but that those developments will harm the fishermen in the area forever. He cites the constant snarl of cars and trucks on the street today and wonders what Commercial Street would be like in the future if the Fishermen’s Wharf project is constructed. “They can build that hotel any goddamn place. We can’t do what we do without being near the water. People come down to the wharf to see us, to see what we do. They’ll build the hotel but one day we will be gone,” Turner said.
Fishermen, no matter what species they harvest, need access to both water and land. Lobsterman Willis Spear, 67, has lent his voice to the longstanding struggle of Portland’s fishermen to maintain a toehold on the city’s waterfront for over 30 years. As Spear notes, “We’ve been here for 400 years. We need access to wharves. Portland is the last continuously operating working waterfront in America.” The incremental loss of space has definitely made Spear and his fellow fishermen unwilling to lose a single remaining inch of access. “That alleyway on the Thomas Block [on the eastern end of Commercial Street] has been deeded access for fishermen from the 1700s. But then the owners started ticketing lobstermen for loading and unloading.”
“People like to see the fishing industry but they don’t necessarily want to co-exist with it,” said Monique Coombs, director of marine programs at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “People have a liking for the authentic but that’s exactly what Portland will lose as it moves forward.”
Maine’s Shoreland Zoning Act prohibits certain activities in the coastal zone (250 feet from the high-water mark). Although the law states that its purpose is, among other things, to conserve public access to the water and protect commercial fishing and the maritime industry, its regulations are primarily directed at ensuring the quality of adjacent waters and conserving shore cover.
“The state can’t really protect ‘authenticity’,” Coombs continued. “It really isn’t something you can measure. It comes from the culture of fishing. We must recognize the value of fishermen.”
“You can’t have mixed use,” Turner said. “It just doesn’t work. The developers can pay so much money for the property and we can’t. You know, the fish are out there. The haddock quota has gone up. Maybe when the fish come back, there will be no infrastructure here to support it.”
Editor’s note: We reached out to the Portland Planning Department for comment for this story but did not receive a response by press time.
Policy statement for Waterfront Central Zone, adopted 12/20/10 Portland city Council
“…to ensure continued opportunities for marine economic activity, the existing hierarchy of uses continues to provide the policy structure for the zone. The use hierarchy is summarized as: water-dependent uses –first priority; marine-related support uses –second priority; and, marine compatible (non-marine) uses -third priority. Zoning implementing greater non-marine opportunities within the framework of the use hierarchy will allow a broader range of uses within new and existing structures and will provide adequate and enforceable protections for commercial marine activity.”
Statement by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is researching municipal and state ordinances and whether or not there is room for improvement to better protect the working waterfront in coastal communities. We’d like to see the working waterfront conserved and create opportunities to encourage marine-use infrastructure improvements and innovation.