In Maine’s decades-long fight over working waterfront, developers have consistently held a distinct cash advantage over fishermen.
That hasn’t changed, so advocates for ensuring that enough Maine piers and wharves remain available to preserve the state’s embattled maritime workforce have adopted new tactics. And there’s hope the state could free up more cash soon for working waterfront preservation.
When Portland’s city council earlier this month enacted a six-month moratorium on non-marine-related development along the city’s working waterfront, even The New York Times paid attention.
The moratorium resulted from a signature-collecting effort for a referendum that would seek to reinstate a requirement that all new projects in the waterfront zone be water-dependent, a rule that would effectively block new construction of hotels, restaurants and offices, which have proliferated in the area in recent decades.
Among other developments, the petition was triggered by a $40 million development project — four-story hotel, retail shops, office space and a parking garage — proposed for Fisherman’s Wharf.
The project is only one currently proposed for Portland’s waterfront, now largely lined with condominiums, restaurants and office buildings.
The Portland waterfront is also critically important to other fishing communities throughout the state. The city is home to the fish exchange and seafood buyers, vessel services, bait dealers and many communities as far as Port Clyde still buy all their ice from Portland.
“Without ice, you don’t have seafood,” Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said.
But fishermen and others who make their living on Maine’s working waterfront have been on alert for nearly 20 years that precious few miles of Maine’s coast remain available for commercial fishing, an industry that in 2017 generated $569 million in landed value and more than $1 billion in economic activity.
In 2008, the Island Institute released its seminal report, “ The Last 20 Miles: Mapping Maine’s Working Waterfront.” The report, based on several years of community mapping, found that of 142 coastal towns and 5,300 miles of coastline, only about 20 miles of working waterfront access remained. Furthermore, 15 percent of the coastal towns reported having no public access to the shore.
More recently, the Maine Working Waterfront Coalition, a group of industry, nonprofits, state agencies and others, reported that only 25 miles of Maine’s 5,300 miles of coast are devoted to commercial fishing activity — 0.36 percent. This 25 miles supports more than 26,000 fishing-related jobs and sustains an industry worth more than $740 million. Boat builders, boatyards and marinas employ another 3,000 people, generating $85 million in wages, the group reported.
“Maine has a lot of coastal development issues not specific to working waterfront,” said Matthew Nixon, deputy director of the Maine Coastal Program, which oversees the working waterfront program. “Coastal flooding, all those issues piled on top of increased coastal development creates a firestorm for working waterfront.”
A decade ago, voters approved bond funding for a Working Waterfront Access Protection Program (WWAPP). By awarding funding to purchase a covenant held by the DMR, an easement on a property that gives the holder access in perpetuity.
During the first two years major working waterfront wharves such as Holbrook’s in Cundy’s Harbor and the Port Clyde Fishermen’s Co-op were protected, along with 13 other projects, according to Land for Maine’s Future.
But in 2011, awards for funding slowed dramatically, with only five projects in the next three years, and since 2014, the bond funds have been unavailable. A request for proposals in 2015 yielded no funding, according to Nixon, and funding for a single project in 2016 was withdrawn.
Shifts and delays
When Gov. Paul LePage abolished the State Planning Office in 2012, the working waterfront program, part of Land for Maine’s Future, was moved to the Department of Agriculture, and then last year to the Department of Marine Resources.
Then, less than a month ago, not long after Mainers elected Democrat Janet Mills as their next governor, the Department of Marine Resources issued a request for proposals for up to $2 million in working waterfront projects.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, the delay in awarding funding since 2011 has been due to bureaucracy — transferring management of the proposals from Coastal Enterprises Inc. to the DMR, which was required to rely on existing staff. But vacancies in the department meant there were no staff to solicit projects, spokesman Jeff Nichols said, and “Commissioner [Patrick] Keliher had no alternative but to hold off on seeking new proposals until the department created the staff capacity to administer the solicitations.”
Until 2013, the working waterfront program awarded $5.3 million to preserve 25 properties — fishing co-ops, private buying stations and municipal wharves, among others — which support about 670 boats, 1,100 fishermen and 1,200 families, according to WWAPP data.
Annual landings supported by those properties totaled approximately $48 million.
Nixon, of the working waterfront program, said Thursday that he sees the request for proposals as an encouraging sign the program may again help the state maintain its threatened resource.
“Working waterfronts are a very important piece of the extraordinary mosaic that is Maine’s coast,” Nixon said in an email. “In addition to the obvious direct and indirect economic value they provide to the state of Maine and the communities where they are located, some of these places are truly cultural treasures that represent Maine’s maritime heritage. … I’m very happy to continue the Maine Coastal Program’s tradition of ensuring Maine’s coastal waters will always be accessible for everyone and that our fishing communities will always have a place to land their catch.”
Small towns, big changes
Portland is far from the only Maine waterfront community in conflict over waterfront development. Perhaps even more vulnerable to development than Portland’s waterfront, Boothbay Harbor has seen dramatic changes to its waterfront in the past few years, most from liquor magnate Paul Coulombe of Southport. The magnitude of the development drew the attention of the statewide historic preservation group Maine Preservation.
Coulombe, who built an 18,000-square-foot mansion on Pratt’s Island off nearby Southport, purchased and redeveloped the former Boothbay Harbor Country Club and the former Rocktide Inn and Restaurant into the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Country Club, has said he’s invested $100 million in the town. He now leads an effort to rezone the east side of the harbor — and much of the town’s Maritime Zone — into a limited commercial district, which would allow hotels, recreational marinas and housing.
Coulombe was set to purchase another large property, Cap’n Fish motel and restaurant, and in a release published in the Boothbay Register in October said he’d invested $500,000 in nonrefundable deposits, in order to build $30 million in a “new hotel, restaurant and world-class conference center” on the site.
Coulombe has insisted that existing accomodations in town won’t attract world travelers, and argues that his renovations have and would bolster the town’s tax coffers.
But a key part of Coulombe’s vision for the east side of the harbor was thwarted in November when a group known as the Boothbay Region Maritime Foundation purchased the nearby Sea Pier with a restrictive covenant that limits the use to “working waterfront.”
Deanne Tibbetts, a member of the foundation whose husband lobsters out of nearby Southport, said at the time, “The fishing heritage is very important to me. … It’s not just the working waterfront. It really, really is heritage. It’s about keeping your sense of community. That’s what I see as the greatest threat here. It isn’t so much losing a piece of land where people can get to the waterfront. It’s a whole culture that [would] be impacted by losing that waterfront.”
Citing Boothbay Harbor as “a prime example” of endangered working waterfront, Maine Preservation has asked the town to re-examine how it manages its historical and cultural resources, and recommended the town update its comprehensive plan.
“This zoning change would open a key stretch of working waterfront to economic pressures that could forever alter the historic character of this area, and significantly impact the viability of marine-based industries in Boothbay Harbor,” Maine Preservation wrote.
Still, projects already facilitated by the Working Waterfront Access Protection Program offer signs of hope for communities still in conflict.
In 2008, the village of Port Clyde celebrated a restored and expanded historic town wharf, built for about $500,000 with funds from the WWAPP.
The Port Clyde Lobstermen’s Cooperative sold development rights to the state so the dock would remain working waterfront in perpetuity.
Gerry Cushman, who has lobstered out of the co-op for about 30 of his 40 years, said members of the co-op opted to build a new dock “to also help other fisheries like ground fishing, shrimping, scalloping and herring fishing.”
Today, scallopers, tuna fishermen and others also unload on the dock.
Cushman, whose grandfather was among the fishermen to found the co-op, said, “this is a place for me to unload my catch. But when I’m done, I’ll just pass it along to the next generation.”
This summer, the town of St. George, which includes the village of Port Clyde, narrowly approved a $2.6 million wharf upgrade with the goal of preserving access to the working waterfront.
“St. George is definitely ahead of the curve,” Cushman said of working waterfront issues. “It seems to be a proactive town.”
In 2010, town officials in Owls Head realized that a 50-year-old lease on a 3-foot-wide easement for foot traffic along a wharf was likely not a sustainable solution for fishermen.
In June 2016, the town purchased, for $305,000, just more than 1 acre of waterfront property, to ensure continued public access to the water for commercial fishermen and others.
The Owls Head project was “a good example of a community beginning to realize that they haven’t publicly owned a wharf in town before,” Nixon said. The town is undergoing design work for a public wharf on the property they purchased, he said.
And back in 2006, the first project funded by the WWAPP, Holbrook’s wharf in Cundy’s Harbor, has seen Holbrook Community Foundation rebuild and improve the wharf, added a new building for commercial fishermen, and rehabilitated other buildings on the property including a seasonal restaurant and general store.
Despite their early action, working waterfront in Harpswell isn’t secure. In 2017, Portland real estate developer Arthur Girard outbid the owners of Cook’s Lobster & Ale House to purchase the Bailey Island wharf adjacent to the restaurant.
Girard, who paid $510,000 for the wharf, said at the time he wasn’t sure what he’d do with the property, which for decades has operated as a commercial fishing wharf for local lobstermen.
Nick and Jennifer Charboneau, owners of Cook’s, said at the time, “as long as they do the work and maintain the wharf and make it a safer place and take care of the people who work there,” they’d be satisfied.
Jennifer Charboneau said Thursday that neither she nor her husband has heard of any plans to develop the wharf.
“He’s done some work on the wharf — not a ton — and has focused more on the lobstermen who fish there, as he should, and he’s done some work to the ferry side to make it more safe,” she said. “I don’t believe he has any plans to do anything other than what he initially promised, and I hope that stays true.”