Finding the key to success for Portland’s working waterfront has challenged city officials and shorefront property owners for more than 20 years. Now they’re trying again, with a revised zoning statute that would relax the currently strict rules concerning allowable uses in the central waterfront zone between the Maine State Pier and the International Marine Terminal.

This time, in contrast to the acrimonious arguments that often surfaced in previous waterfront rezoning discussions, few people are questioning the need for change. The focus is more about the degree of change that should be allowed. “Doing nothing,” observes Charlie Poole, owner of Union Wharf, “is not an option.”

The proposed zoning would open up 50 percent of first-floor space and wharf surfaces to non-marine but compatible uses. “They can’t adversely affect pier use,” Ingalls explains, and would include, for example, construction companies, restaurants, and small shops. It would also ease parking restrictions and double the amount of dockage permitted for recreational boats from 50 to 100 feet per pier. It broadens the definition of allowable boats to include commercial vessels such as tour boats.

Poole and Ingalls expect the new zoning to clear the planning board and come before the Portland City Council in July.

In the background, meanwhile, looms the potential impact of construction of the so-called megaberth at the city’s Ocean Gateway pier. A $47.8 million jobs-related bond issue due to be voted on this June includes $6.5 million for the long-delayed dock, which is designed to accommodate new-generation cruise ships up to 1,200 feet long. The tens of thousands of additional visitors the berth could attract will inevitably increase pressure on the rest of the waterfront to shift its focus from marine-related uses to more tourist-oriented businesses.

Poole says the rezoning effort began in late 2008 when waterfront property owners sent a letter to the city council urging a new look at the area’s allowable uses. “The city had just rezoned the area around the Maine State Pier to allow hotels and such,” Poole explains. “That’s a different zone, but it got the rest of the waterfront thinking if it’s OK for the city to look at changes, then why not for us.”

Current zoning allows only marine-related businesses in the central waterfront zone. “You’ve got to read that as fishing, and there’s just not enough of that left anymore to maintain a pier,” says Richard “Dick” Ingalls, former chair of the Harbor Commission and co-chair of the Waterfront Alliance, who has been working with Poole on the proposal.

Where once Portland hosted some 50 groundfishing boats, today a bare handful still operate. The rest have moved to Massachusetts ports that are closer to the fishing grounds and allow boats to keep and sell up to 100 lobsters a day as bycatch. The Portland Fish Exchange has seen its business drop from a peak of 30 million pounds to a record low 6.5 million pounds last year.

“We’ve lost a lot of ancillary services,” Ingalls says, from fuel companies to repair shops. The only bright spot has been the 70 or so lobster boats that are still active, and Poole says pier owners are giving them a break on dockage fees because the lobster industry has seen hard times lately.

Former Portland Mayor Anne Pringle understands the pier owners’ problems, but she also worries that the changes are the foot in the door for further relaxation of zoning restrictions down the road. “I’m not sure this is the panacea that they say it will be,” she says. “I worry that if this doesn’t work, then the next step will be asking for hotels and condos down there.”

Pringle favors stepping back and engaging in a larger discussion about the long-term preservation of waterfront access. “I feel very sad that the state of Maine hasn’t been as aggressive as it should be in protecting and preserving our groundfish industry,” she says. She also questions the urgency when most of the waterfront properties have “surprisingly low” vacancy rates.

The impact of Portland’s growing cruise ship industry on the issue is difficult to gauge, although everyone involved favors building the megaberth to attract more ships. Nicole Clegg, city manager Joe Gray’s spokeswoman, says city officials expect 70 cruise ships to bring at least 80,000 visitors to Portland this year, up from 48 ships and 70,000 passengers last year. “We’ve had increases in ships and passenger numbers every year for the past five years,” Clegg notes.

“I still see this as a commercial, working area of the city,” Poole insists. “We see this making the waterfront a more vibrant sector of the city, with more jobs and additional property taxes from new businesses.” While the additional tourism will undoubtedly bring new businesses to wharfs that have the space, “the new zoning contains lots of room for review by the city to weed out incompatible uses,” he says. And if fishing rebounds, “you can bet that the people here will make a hole for them,” Poole says.

“The zoning down here hadn’t been substantially changed in 17 years,” Poole says, “and the world has changed a lot in that time.”

Jeff Clark is a writer living in Bath, Maine