Lobsterman Willis Spear, right, and sternman Nick Kamra sort bait Wednesday after returning to Portland Harbor. Spear organized a petition drive seeking protections for marine businesses as development surges. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

A spurt of hotel, office and shopping developments planned for Portland’s waterfront is rekindling concerns that space for fishermen and other traditional marine businesses is disappearing as Commercial Street becomes a shopping and dining mecca.

Commercial fishermen who have unloaded lobster and groundfish on Portland’s wharves for decades see the changes as the next step in a long process to change the face of the waterfront, to their disadvantage.

Some report rising parking costs and the loss of berths to yachts. They worry that downtown traffic jams threaten shipments of perishable food and that scads of tourists give the waterfront a carnival atmosphere. There also is a perception that City Hall is siding with developers and overlooking the traditional waterfront’s economic impact, which the fishermen estimate is well over $100 million a year.

“They just don’t get it,” said Willis Spear, who has berthed his lobster boat on Custom House Wharf for 40 years. “We said in the beginning that this would happen, we’d just get squeezed out. It is going way faster than anyone knows.”

In a petition organized by Spear and sent to the Portland Planning Board in July, more than 90 lobstermen, fishermen and waterfront business owners said that four new developments planned for Commercial Street would put the entire working waterfront in jeopardy. Organizers highlighted a planned condo-hotel at the former Rufus Deering Lumber site; redevelopment of the Portland Co. property at 58 Fore Street; a hotel, office and parking garage planned at 184 Commercial St. on Fisherman’s Wharf; and a three-building mixed office, retail and restaurant development on Union Wharf.

“The very lifeblood of Portland will cease to flow if these developments are allowed to continue,” the handwritten petition states. “No new offices, condominiums or hotels must ever be allowed on the wharf side of Commercial Street if the maritime trade is going to continue to exist.”

RECOGNIZING THE ECONOMIC IMPACT

According to projections provided by the petitioners, about $150 million worth of lobster and groundfish and $141 million worth of bait fish are trucked out of the city’s wharves and along Commercial Street every year.

“I’m afraid the city of Portland doesn’t recognize the value of the fishing industry they have,” said Steve Train, a lobsterman from Long Island.

If more development eats up parking, berths and access, commercial fishermen will have no choice but to leave, disrupting one of the country’s unique waterfronts, Train said.

“The reality is, the fishing industry can’t come up the Presumpscot (River) and take out in Westbrook,” Train said. “What we have is the Portland waterfront.”

The petition has been included in files that will be reviewed by the Planning Board when it considers the waterfront hotel at 184 Commercial St. and the redevelopment of the Rufus Deering Lumber property, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

A rendering depicts the hotel proposed for a public parking lot on Fisherman’s Wharf at 184 Commercial St. It would include office space, a parking garage and a public plaza. Courtesy of Archetype PA of Portland

HISTORIC CONFLICT ON WATERFRONT

Tension between commercial development and marine industries is a perennial issue on Portland’s waterfront. In the late 1980s, the city passed a ban on waterfront condominium development and later created zoning intended to preserve marine industries in the central waterfront between the Maine State Pier and International Marine Terminal.

But since the 1990s, the groundfishing industry has collapsed, and Portland has lost 50 percent of its fishing fleet and two-thirds of the fish sold at the Portland Fish Exchange, according to the city’s newest comprehensive plan.

Zoning rules passed in 2010 made it easier for pier owners to rent to non-marine businesses and develop parcels near Commercial Street. The rules, requested by pier owners, were intended to provide enough revenue to pay for expensive wharf repair and maintenance.

Charlie Poole, president of Proprietors of Union Wharf, seen in front of Union Wharf last year, says marine businesses don’t pay enough to support wharf upkeep, leaving owners to turn to other sources. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Charlie Poole, president of Proprietors of Union Wharf, said his company already has approval to build 45,000 square feet of office and retail space at the head of Union and Widgery wharves, replacing a restaurant and parking lot. There were no objections to the plan, Poole said.

“I can understand how people say, ‘We don’t want more development on the Portland waterfront.’ I get it,” Poole said. But marine businesses and fishermen don’t pay enough for wharf upkeep, leaving owners to turn to other sources, he said.

“Office space is literally subsidizing the working waterfront,” Poole said.

David Bateman, who is planning a mixed-used development at the head of Fisherman’s Wharf, said he doesn’t understand why commercial fishermen targeted his development for criticism.

The building would be constructed on existing parking lots and includes office space, a 96-room hotel, parking garage and public plaza.

All those uses, with the exception of a hotel, are allowed under zoning rules, Bateman said.

“That is why I am a little baffled by that level of concern,” he said. “The majority of the waterfront is not zoned for non-marine-use activities. The plan is pretty clear.”

PRIOR BATTLES, CONSTANT EVOLUTION

Lobstermen have successfully organized to block changes before. In 2010, Spear circulated a handwritten petition to block a request from wharf owners to give 50 percent of berthing space to recreational vessels. The effort was successful – current zoning reserves the majority of berthing space for commercial boats, said Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman.

“Since the 1980s there has been a constant evolution of waterfront zoning in Portland. I don’t expect that is going to change,” Needelman said.

Although the city has received no reports of lobstermen losing their berths to recreational boaters, Needelman admits it is hard to enforce the waterfront’s unique zoning.

“These are difficult enforcement issues to address. They float, they move around, there is seasonal dockage that comes into play,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

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