In the early 2000s, a plethora of data was collected and a suite of reports on Maine’s working waterfronts produced, from the Island Institute’s “The
Last 20 Miles: Mapping Maine’s Working Waterfronts” to Sea Grant’s “Maine Waterfront Access Status and Future,” even community-specific studies like “Cundy’s Harbor Working Waterfront Study Village Profile and Policy Options.” Each looked at the status of various working waterfronts along the coast of Maine and made suggestions for conservation and improvement. Each of the reports also declared the importance of the fishing industry to Maine’s 142 coastal communities, to the state’s economy and tourism, and to Maine’s culture, heritage, and way of life. Many Maine coastal towns with comprehensive plans also make this same declaration, reiterating how important the fishing industry is to the health of its small coastal community.
The Maine State Planning Office’s “Land Use in Maine: Determinants of Past Trends and Projections of Future Changes,” published in 199, said, “Maine’s population is projected to increase by 16 percent, which would result in urban land increases of 56 percent by 2050.” The state government has a lot of data pointing out that it is both important and necessary to protect the waterfront, but as Maine’s urban land and population increases, so will the demand for access to the waterfront and pristine views. What is Maine’s plan for conserving the working waterfront? What concrete actions have been taken to plan for development, new homeowners, increasing tourism, and new intertidal and subtidal uses?
In Portland, a Working Waterfront Group consisting of fishermen and other waterfront stakeholders has been meeting regularly to fight to conserve the working waterfront on Commercial Street. In September, the Working Waterfront Group sent the city a request for a moratorium on Commercial Street that would stop new development until a traffic study had been completed. The city did not respond to this initial request so in turn the Working Waterfront Group pursued a citizen’s referendum. The referendum would enact changes to the entirety of the waterfront-side of Commercial Street. In reaction to the threat of such a referendum, the city of Portland voted on a moratorium that would pause development in the Waterfront Central Zone for 180 days. This moratorium was voted on and passed on Monday, December 17 and will end in June.
For now, the Working Waterfront Group only conditionally supports the moratorium and will continue to collect signatures for the citizen-initiated referendum until the city of Portland has demonstrated its commitment to address problems identified in the moratorium Immediate actions by Portland would include forming a task force that will collaborate in evaluating and making recommendations to the Portland Planning Board and City Council on the use of waterfront Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds and waterfront zone ordinance amendments. In particular, the Waterfront Working Group would like to see the elimination of conditional rezoning for uses that are specifically prohibited in the Waterfront Central Zone, as has happened with increasing frequency.
In Brunswick and Eliot, local residents are opposing oyster farms because they think the leases are too large, will negatively impact the environment, and may interfere with recreational and scenic qualities. As aquaculture and oyster farming continue to grow in Maine, this type of conflict — between waterfront businesses and homeowners — will continue to arise. Some local commercial fishermen also worry about sharing space with oyster farmers and their ability to access traditional fishing grounds. Perhaps waterfront industries, wild-caught and farm-raised seafood businesses will consider working together to stave off gentrification rather than creating rivalries within the waterfront.
The Cundy’s Harbor Working Waterfront Study from 2004 included a list of recommendations for policies, regulations, and investments that could help protect the working waterfront in Harpswell. After studying the village and analyzing current land and marine uses, the authors interviewed fishermen and identified many issues as threats to the waterfront: escalating land values, rising property taxes, conflicts with non-fishermen, inadequate parking, restrictions to storage of marine-related equipment, conversion of marine-related sites, availability of marine-related services, crowding in harbors, environmental degradation of harbor waters, regulatory limitations to marine-related activities, public water access, and loss of community character. This past year, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association conducted a fishing community needs assessment in Harpswell and confirmed that many of these issues remain as problems plaguing the fishing industry.
It is likely that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to these problems. In the Cundy’s Harbor report, the authors suggested both regulatory and
non-regulatory opportunities to help conserve the waterfront, including tax policies, working with land trusts, educating the community about the fishing industry, revising shoreland zoning, designing guidelines, planning board approval for applications within the commercial fishing zone, dedicated parking, and working with realtors to ensure new residents are informed about fishing activities within commercial fishing zones. They also suggested a “right to fish” ordinance, though noted that this might be difficult to enforce. “The town could pass an ordinance that sends a message to the community that fishing, and its attendant smells, noise, early hours of activity, lights, or other inconveniences is an accepted and permissible practice in the commercial fishing districts… a strong policy declaring fishing-related activities as allowed uses and activities would certainly help support a presumption in favor of commercial fishing in any legal action seeking to limit fishing-related activities or in any political effort to pass an ordinance that might have the effect of limiting fishing-related activities.”
Maine fishing communities should be asking the question that the authors asked in the Cundy’s Harbor report: “What needs can and should the town address in order to support the working waterfront and the marine-related businesses?” Portland is now trying to create ways to work with fishermen to identify solutions and create plans to protect the working waterfront on Commercial Street. With all the other issues that fishermen are dealing with, it’s important that they have a safe and stable port to come home to. It’s up to the fishing community and the towns to work together, identify solutions, and act.
We don’t need any more reports and we certainly shouldn’t wait until a town is about to lose its fishing industry completely to make changes needed to protect working waterfronts.