“People’s veto” threatened over State Pier rezoning
Critics call proposed change rushed, short-sighted
By Chris Busby
If the Portland City Council votes at its Aug. 7 meeting to change the zoning governing use and development of the Maine State Pier, critics of the rezoning proposal say they will mount a campaign to repeal it with a “people’s veto” – a process by which municipal ordinances can be repealed by a citywide vote.
The council is scheduled to consider zoning changes that would allow offices, restaurants, retail shops and hotels to occupy the publicly owned pier on the eastern end of the waterfront. Current zoning restricts use of the pier to marine-related uses.
Earlier this year, City Manager Joe Gray asked the council and planning staff to find other uses for the Portland Ocean Terminal, the docking and warehouse facility that occupies most of the Maine State Pier. Gray’s request came after the city and the private construction firm Cianbro Corp. tried unsuccessfully for several years to attract more marine industrial work to the site. (Cianbro completed an oil rig project there in 2003, but has since been unable to secure other major marine projects, though the company will help retrofit a tanker at the terminal later this year.)
The lack of a major tenant at the terminal is costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrealized rent revenue every year, Gray and others have said. Furthermore, the pier and terminal facility, built in 1922, need repairs that could cost $10 million or more.
Private developers have been eying the terminal facility for years, say city officials, but thus far only one major proposal has come to light: a plan by New Hampshire-based Ocean Properties to build a hotel, cruise ship terminal, market and museum on the property. That plan has raised eyebrows, in part because it’s being pushed by Ocean Properties executive Bob Baldacci (brother of Gov. John Baldacci) and former Portland City Councilor and Mayor Peter O’Donnell. [See“Ex-mayor, Gov’s brother push waterfront hotel project.”]
The council’s Community Development Committee (CDC) held a couple public hearings on the matter this past spring, and the Portland Planning Board also held hearings on the new zoning language. While some members of the public in attendance supported new uses for the pier and terminal, many others objected to the proposed changes. Some pier owners complained that zoning governing their property does not permit hotels. Critics also said the rezoning process is moving forward with unusual speed, and some have accused the city of tailoring the zoning to Ocean Properties’ proposal.
Last week, the planning board unanimously voted against the new zoning. Planning board member John Anton is a leader of the effort to repeal the zoning should the council approve it next Monday.
“The city’s proposing to have a different set of rules for itself than it has for others,” Anton said in an interview yesterday. “This represents a sea change in city policy towards the waterfront.”
City officials are pessimistic about the pier’s potential to attract more marine-industrial work, but Anton said the terminal site, with its deep-water berth, shouldn’t be abandoned so soon or so readily. “I don’t think we should be throwing away the possibility of marine-industrial work in the future for a quick buck,” he said. “You could put a hotel anywhere in this city; you cannot put construction of an oil rig anywhere else.”
City Councilor Jim Cloutier, chairman of the CDC, points out that the new zoning still allows marine-industrial work to take place at the pier, and its language gives preference to marine-related uses over other uses. The zoning change would enable the city to begin soliciting proposals for the pier’s redevelopment, but it doesn’t compel the city to accept one type of proposal over another.
A key to any successful redevelopment proposal will be the developer’s ability to invest in the pier’s repair. Cloutier said the CDC determined that “if we want a realistic partnership with a private company or entity to improve the pier, we have two choices: either a lot of taxpayer money or allowing a high-value use, which is a hotel [and/or] an office building. The reality is, renting out dock space doesn’t raise enough money to create the docks.”
Cloutier disagrees with those, like Anton, who say the rezoning process is being rushed. He said zoning work for the area was begun years ago, as part of the planning process for the Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal now under construction just east of the State Pier. And this past zoning work, combined with the recent rezoning of the central portion of the waterfront, has provided the framework for the current rezoning proposal.
Some of Cloutier’s council colleagues, however, aren’t so sure there’s been enough public input yet.
“If there was a [public] process… it’s very different from any process we’ve used to date when there’s been sensitivity around waterfront zoning,” said Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who formed the task forces that worked on Ocean Gateway’s plans over five years ago.
Councilor Ed Suslovic said he’s “struggling” with the question of whether “there’s an adequate enough consensus around a realistic vision for that property for the council to move forward.” The likelihood of a people’s veto succeeding “goes up significantly if the public feels there hasn’t been an adequate process to achieve that vision.
“Yet at the same time,” Suslovic added, “I’m not sure we can afford a 10-year process.”
Councilor Will Gorham represents the East End district that includes the Maine State Pier. Like Suslovic, Gorham’s wary of having a protracted discussion of the pier’s redevelopment The facility “is hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars at this point,” said Gorham. “Let these guys say we’re rushing into it. If that’s the way they want to manage the city’s properties, we’ll see what the voters have to say.”
The people’s veto threat has added significance for Gorham, who is running for reelection this year, because one of his opponents, Kevin Donoghue, is siding with the veto group. Donoghue is co-chair of the city’s Green Independent Party, and has pledged to help collect the 1,500 signatures necessary to initiate the repeal process if the council OK’s the new zoning on Monday.
Like Anton, Donoghue feels there should be more public input and discussion of the pier’s re-use. He’s concerned a hotel or office development would further “gentrify” the traditionally working-class East End neighborhood above the pier. And he also isn’t convinced the pier cannot attract more marine-related work in future years.
“That pier is a long-term asset to the city, and we cannot say from a few years’ experience what its potential is over the generations,” said Donoghue. “I find this quick action short-sighted.”
Speaking of generations, Gorham said his grandfather worked on the Maine State Pier for over 40 years, and that his father and brother also worked on that part of the waterfront. Given that history, Gorham said he’d be “the last person” to suggest non-marine uses for the pier if he thought there was a chance for more water-dependent work there.
“Where’s this work coming from?” Gorham asked rhetorically. “It’s easier to throw this [people’s veto] stuff out there and muck up the waters than come up with viable answers of what to do with the Maine State Pier.”
Anton has served on the planning board for two-and-a-half years. He recently resigned from the board, effective Sept. 1, several months before his term was scheduled to end.
If the city council approves the zoning change Monday, Anton’s group will have 30 days to collect the required signatures from registered Portland voters. Once the signatures are verified by the city clerk, the council will have an opportunity to repeal the zoning itself. If it does not do that, a special, citywide referendum vote will be scheduled, and would likely take place in early 2007, said City Clerk Linda Cohen. A simple majority vote in favor of repeal would then strike the new zoning from the books.