Portland waterfront. Credit: Troy R, Bennett

Under threat of a citizen’s referendum that could shut down non-marine-related development on Portland’s waterfront for decades, the City Council has unanimously approved a 6-month moratorium on development in the zone.

It also approved creation of a task force to try to solve traffic congestion and other access issues that led fishermen to seek the referendum in the first place.

City Manager Jon Jennings proposed the moratorium last week, after it became clear that organizers of the potentially divisive referendum were likely to get the signatures needed to put it to a citywide vote.

Several wharf and waterfront property owners turned out for last night’s council meeting to support the pause, including Phineas Sprague, a longtime force in waterfront real estate who is working to expand his shipyard on the western waterfront. He counseled understanding for the fishermen’s plight.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the people they are complaining to and asking really don’t understand boats and don’t understand what it’s like to find someone in your parking place next to your boat where you wanted to take the lobster traps off and you wanted to get to the boat. So, there’s a serious logistical problem that’s because of the success of Portland,” Sprague said.

Representatives of the fishermen’s group say they too support the moratorium — and they are hopeful that a stakeholder task force to be appointed by Jennings could move quickly on solutions.

Councilor Belinda Ray noted that this is the third moratorium that affects her district on the city’s peninsula: first, a citywide moratorium on sales of adult-use marijuana, then a ban on demolitions in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood.

“And I think that is a testament to the fact that we are booming. And we need to make sure that we are booming with balance,” she said. “And if we lose that balance we lose a lot of what has brought so many of us here to Portland.”

The moratorium was supported by pier owners, who worried that a referendum in the works could severely curtail their ability to develop their properties. Some said that would harm fishermen, too, because high-priced office and storefront rents can subsidize affordable berths for fishing boats.

Fishermen gathering signatures for the proposed referendum say they hope the moratorium — and a task force the city will convene to address the problem — will succeed. They also say they will continue to gather signatures.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.