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Portland zoning amendments would ban new restaurants, retail

Some say it's a way to protect Portland's working waterfront. Others say there's no need to change the zoning that was established nearly a decade ago.

PORTLAND, Maine — There's a proposed plan to ban any new restaurants or retail stores along the piers in Maine's largest city. The plan is part of proposed zoning amendments for Portland's working waterfront.

Some say it's a way to address the concerns of fishermen who fear new development is pushing them aside. Others say there's no need to change the zoning that's worked for fishermen and wharf owners for nearly a decade.

For months, city leaders have been meeting regularly with the Waterfront Working Group which is made up of fishermen, wharf owners, and business owners.

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"The plan is a staff recommendation that reflects those conversations," said Bill Needelman, Portland's waterfront coordinator. "We're really trying to recalibrate that balance. Trying to find the place where both the fishing community and the development community can exist on this waterfront."

Under the proposal, presented last Tuesday, restaurants and retail stores that already exist on the wharves will be allowed to stay.

"Nobody's going to be kicked out," Needelman said.

The amendments would get rid of contract and conditional zoning within the Central Waterfront Zone. The proposal also recommends tripling the amount of time vacant pier buildings are on the market for marine tenants and altering the "overlay zone" to ensure any development is closer to Commercial Street.

Needelman says it's about how the waterfront will change over time and ensuring there's enough space for fishing and marine use while providing opportunities for pier owners to develop their properties.

"They need to maintain the wharves, they need revenue. But at the same time, these wharves are here to support [the] marine industry."

He says he hopes to have the zoning proposal enacted before a freeze on new waterfront development expires in June.

As to how the wharf owners could look to generate revenue under the proposed plan, Bill Needelman says office spaces will work.

"Upper floor office, first-floor office, non-marine light industrial uses, there are non-marine opportunities that will continue to exist in the waterfront central zone," he said.

Developer and wharf owner, David Bateman, was once pursuing plans to build a hotel on Fisherman's Wharf. He responded to the proposed plan by saying, "it makes no sense." He sent the following statement to NEWS CENTER Maine:

"It makes no sense for activists to push measures that significantly reduce taxable values of properties sitting in this waterfront TIF district. These properties generate the money that pays for infrastructure improvements on the working waterfront. They're about to choke off the piggy bank created to help the fishermen --- that's why the zone was established in the first place. Meanwhile, the changes create absolutely no new berthing for fishermen."

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Another wharf owner, Ken Macgowan who owns Custom House Wharf and the Porthole Restaurant, questions changing zoning that was implemented nine years ago, and has worked for him and the fishermen who use his wharf. 

"We think we've done everything to make it easier for the fishermen, they want more," he said.

Zoning implemented in 2010 relaxed the development restrictions in the Central Waterfront Zone.

"I still think a hotel would be perfect down on the waterfront," said Macgowan.

Macgowan says he believes the idea of more business happening a night time, with restaurants and hotels, could ease the congestion and parking concerns of fishermen on Commercial Street. 

"It's hard for deliveries but you know what the delivery companies don't care. My beer distributor can't stand coming down here some days but we sell a lot of beer so they're happy," said Macgowan.

Bill Needelman says the proposal will go before a public hearing with the planning board that's scheduled for early June. The planning board will then come up with its recommendation to present to the Portland city council.

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