It’s been almost two years since Belfast developer Paul Naron opened his new waterfront property to the public on a day filled with cheers and fanfare.
When Naron took a handsaw and started cutting through the thick timbers that separated two sides of the Belfast Harbor Walk, it allowed pedestrians to move freely between Heritage Park and Steamboat Landing Park. The move allowed walkers to avoid an uphill detour that swerved around the previously closed private property.
It was a good day for the developer, and for anyone who enjoys strolling, jogging or cycling along the harbor.
But relations between Naron and city officials over his plans to develop the former Consumer’s Fuel and French & Webb buildings have soured so much recently that he is contemplating closing his portion of the Harbor Walk once again.
He hopes that people who support him — and who want the Harbor Walk to stay open — will come to a public work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at Belfast City Hall. There likely won’t be an opportunity for members of the public to speak at the meeting, but Naron believes their presence alone may be powerful.
“I’ve got hundreds of people telling me I should shut the damn thing down,” he said, adding that he doesn’t really want to do that but feels as if it is the only way city officials might listen to him. “This is the only way we can discuss it. I don’t know if it’s going to do any good. There hasn’t been any open discourse between me and them.”
According to Naron, his problem with the city centers on the Harbor Walk, a popular pedestrian pathway that stretches more than half a mile from the Armistice Bridge to the Belfast Boat House. The developer, who created the United Farmers’ Market on Spring Street, wants to convert the two waterfront buildings to multi-use commercial spaces and expand the existing wharf to create a marina.
But the properties are under contract, or spot, rezoning, a strategy that is intended to give the owner a wider variety of possible uses while allowing the City Council to ultimately approve or reject elements of a zoning plan. No matter what is developed there, city officials have said that it is critical to Belfast that there is a permanent easement across the property for the Harbor Walk.
Naron has offered them a 20-year lease, at $1 per year, but there’s a catch, City Manager Joe Slocum said. The lease has a 180-day cancellation clause that can be triggered for any reason or at any time. Officials want more reassurance that the trail will remain open to the public.
The two sides have been negotiating this, and more, for the past few months. Slocum said that he does not believe the hourlong public work session is the right time for Naron to ask people to come.
“This is really inappropriate,” Slocum said. “Mr. Naron can do whatever he wants with his property. We respect that. We understand that. The City Council is under discussions with him. The council is not going to have these discussions in the newspaper. I’m really disappointed — he’s pitted the whole city against the council.”
Slocum said that the city has to change the zoning to allow Naron to do what he wants with his property. That decision is one that will be made by the council, not by the broader community, he said.
“He’s asked the city under contract rezoning to do some different things. The city has made him some offers that he doesn’t like. How would you feel if you were a public official and had 50, 60 people breathing down your throat?” Slocum said. “I think it’s a big mistake. I would not want to be an elected official and have a bunch of people storm City Hall to get their way.”
But Naron said that he feels as if his back is against the wall. The zoning agreement had gone through seven readings, he said, but was tabled in February. That’s when a contentious executive session took place with the City Council, which included voices raised so loudly that a reporter for the Republican Journal could hear them through closed doors. Then, Naron said, he was asked to come to another executive session held by the City Council.
“They made me sit outside for an hour. They all talked for five or 10 minutes about how great I was, and then they said, ‘forget it. No deal,’” Naron said. “Here I’m trying to do these projects for the town. I’m ready to bail. I have listed the properties for sale already. I’m very serious.”
He said that his experience with city officials has been frustrating, to put it mildly.
“I’m the only person who’s going to take real money, not ask for tax breaks, do these projects, live in this town and not have another domicile elsewhere in the country,” he said. “They are looking to blow it, big time.”