Council delays vote on State Pier rezoning
Zone change likely to pass; veto effort to follow
By Chris Busby
The Portland City Council delayed action on a controversial rezoning for the Maine State Pier in order to give the planning board and a council committee more time to discuss its details.
However, based on comments made during tonight’s meeting, it seems likely the zoning change will pass when it returns to the council in late September. And the group threatening to bring the matter to voters for a possible “people’s veto” remains committed to fighting the zoning change.
Mayor Jim Cohen introduced the idea of giving the council’s Community Development Committee (CDC) six weeks to try to refine details of the zoning language with the planning board, which unanimously rejected the zoning change in late July. Planning board chairman Kevin Beal said after the meeting he expects the group will work on minor details, but major issues – such as zoning language permitting hotels, offices and cruise ship facilities on the pier – are unlikely to be worked out before the rezoning returns to the council on Sept. 18.
Councilors Jill Duson and Karen Geraghty voted against the delay, and appear to be firmly opposed to the zone change. But at least five of the nine councilors made comments that suggest they support allowing more non-marine uses on the pier. Those councilors include Mayor Cohen, CDC chairman Jim Cloutier, CDC member Nick Mavodones, Will Gorham and Ed Suslovic.
Councilor Donna Carr was absent from tonight’s meeting, and Councilor Cheryl Leeman gave little indication which way she was leaning on the matter, though she cautioned that money – that is, the need for the city to collect rent revenue from the pier – should not be “the driving force” behind the zone change.
Leeman had earlier questioned whether there has been enough public input on this matter, and Geraghty questioned whether six weeks will be sufficient to give waterfront stakeholders a say in the change.
“There’s been ample time for public comment,” said Mavodones, noting that the CDC and planning board have each held a couple public hearings on the zone change in recent months.
Geraghty specifically mentioned a waterfront development in Key West, Florida, built by Ocean Properties, the New Hampshire-based company that has shown some councilors plans for a hotel, retail and cruise ship facility it is interested in building on the site of the Portland Ocean Terminal – the city-owned marine industrial complex that occupies the eastern half of the pier. [See “Ex-mayor, Gov’s brother push waterfront hotel project.”] While it may be “beneficial” to talk with Ocean Properties, Geraghty said, such development “may not be right for Portland.”
Geraghty also wondered aloud whether a “specific development scheme” is “driving the rush” to seek proposals for the pier’s reuse.
City Manager Joe Gray acknowledged some people have accused him of pushing the pier’s redevelopment to allow Ocean Properties to build there, but said he had not met with Ocean Properties this past January when he decided redevelopment is necessary.
Duson made it clear she would not support a hotel on the pier. Gorham – one of the council’s strongest supporters of rezoning – declared, “As far as I’m concerned, you’ll never see a hotel on the Maine State Pier,” and also voiced opposition to office development there. But he stressed, “We owe it to the taxpayers to do something” with the property.
Members of the public who spoke on the matter were fairly evenly split. Several members of the Portland Regional Chamber business association spoke in favor of the rezoning, as did Jack Humeniuk of the local longshoremen’s union. Critics echoed concerns raised earlier about the speed, fairness and appropriateness of the zoning change being proposed.
Planning board member John Anton, a leader of the nascent effort to overturn the rezoning through a citywide vote, remained undeterred after tonight’s meeting. The additional time for planning board and CDC negotiations “seems wholly inadequate,” Anton said. “It gives us [six] more weeks to line up our signatures.”
Kevin Donoghue, a local activist who intends to run against Gorham this fall for the seat representing the district the pier is in, is also a member of the veto group. He said he was “entertained” by what he characterized as Gorham’s contention that “we can’t do nothing, so we have to do the wrong thing.”
During tonight’s meeting, Gorham seemed to acknowledge the political bind councilors face with this decision. “We’ll be damned if we do and we’ll be damned if we don’t,” he said.