Sometimes doing nothing is the right move. Portland’s proposed six-month pause on waterfront development is a great example.

If the temporary moratorium gives a wide range of competing interests a chance to work through a complex problem, it would be a big accomplishment. And it would also show other municipalities, and even the state, that there is a better way to resolve a tough issue than stiff-arming the critics, daring them to take their case to a referendum.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the moratorium Monday. They should take this opportunity to find a better way to protect the working waterfront.

Portland’s problems grow from a development boom in which hotels, office buildings and condominiums are appearing on what used to be industrial properties. Shops and restaurants along Commercial Street are attracting more visitors who also want to experience the waterfront.

None of this would sound like a problem in communities that are hungry for commercial development, but along with the jobs and tax revenue, the growth comes with traffic and a parking shortage that affects the people who need access to the water to move perishable commodities like lobster bait or ice.

For the fishermen and the businesses that supply them, traffic is not just an annoyance, it’s a threat to their livelihood. And as new projects move through the planning process, the people who work on the waterfront have a legitimate concern that a real estate price bubble could force them out of town, replaced by even more hotels and office buildings. A group announced a referendum campaign last month that would respond to these pressures, and began collecting signatures.

The referendum calls for replacing a large section of the city’s zoning code, affecting not just the central waterfront where the fishermen dock. It would also impact the city’s cargo port on the western waterfront, as well as the eastern waterfront, where a cruise ship and ferry terminal have been established. Like all referendums, this one doesn’t leave any room for compromise, just a single up or down vote.

The city’s proposed moratorium gives all the waterfront players, public and private, a chance to find a better solution, with a six-month deadline to keep them focused.

There is good reason to believe that they will be able to do it. What the fishermen have identified is essentially a transportation problem. Traffic jams occur when there are too many cars, especially slow-moving vehicles with drivers looking for parking. If the city can move people and manage parking more effectively, the fishermen’s concerns can be addressed even if the city continues to grow.

It’s worth a try anyway. The referendum option won’t go away, because it’s supporters can continue to gather signatures while the negotiations get started.


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