Like most changes on Portland’s historic waterfront, this change won’t happen without a fight-or at least protracted negotiations and a certain amount of politics.

The change, if it happens, would be a liberalization of the working-waterfront zoning that has controlled the ways the piers along Commercial Street are used. Today and for the past 25 years, permitted uses have favored the fishing industry and businesses that serve it: seafood dealers, chandlers and various marine-related businesses.

The rules largely date from the late 1980s when-after a period of decline-disused piers dating from the Age of Sail began to attract the eyes of commercial and residential developers.

The attraction was obvious: following a brush with Urban Renewal demolition and highway construction that produced neighborhood-isolating connector roadways like the Franklin Arterial, Portland’s Old Port was extensively redeveloped in the 1970s and 80s. The destruction of Union Station sparked historic preservation efforts in the city. Dilapidated brick buildings along streets uphill from the waterfront became restaurants, offices and upscale stores. Interest in living downtown grew as Portland re-acquainted itself with its urban past; condominiums went up on Chandler’s Wharf and offices and more condos sprouted on Portland Pier. The march of redevelopment toward the waterfront looked inevitable.

Standing in the way, of course, were the waterfront’s then-current crop of “traditional” users including fishing boats and marine-related businesses. While a few owners might profit from selling once-distressed real estate to developers, there was the real risk that many longtime users of the waterfront would be pushed out. Where to tie up? Where to offload fish or lobsters? Where to buy fuel? Have repairs made? Fishing is a risky and often low-margin business; the last thing those who depended on waterfront access to earn their livings needed was a bunch of condominiums and offices, with their associated parked cars, taking up space fishermen had used for generations.

Marshalling allies all over town, advocates for the working waterfront pushed through zoning changes designed to prevent the conversion of piers and limited waterfront space to non-marine uses.  Adopted in the late 1980s after a contentious referendum and amendments, the zoning has remained in effect ever since.

Not everyone has liked it, of course. Pier owners have argued for years that they need the revenue they’d gain from being allowed to rent their space to a wider variety of tenants. Income from high-rent users-accountants and law firms, for example-could pay for needed maintenance and improvements. Pilings, decking and whole buildings on the piers need repair or replacement; there’s the ongoing need for dredging to keep the water alongside piers deep enough for larger vessels. All this work, pier owners contend, requires money from somewhere; it makes sense, they say, to allow at least a portion of these large waterfront structures to be rented to people and firms that can afford the high rents one might expect to pay to be on the waterfront.

Another argument, not heard widely this year but nonetheless historical fact, is that over the centuries, Portland’s entire waterfront scene has changed-and changed again. From the city’s earliest days to the late 19th century, the waterfront and its piers were hubs of transportation and the home of manufacturing industries that required access to shipping by water. Nearly all of that activity left long ago for places closer to railroads and interstate highways, and the fishing industry is what remains. Now that business, too, is in decline, leaving pier owners looking for new options.

In 2009 a group of pier owners in Portland’s waterfront central zone (the stretch between Maine State Pier and the International Marine Terminal) approached the city planning board with proposals to liberalize zoning. Under the plan eventually endorsed by the board, up to half of a pier’s ground-floor space could be leased to non-marine commercial tenants. While the pier owners didn’t raise it, the question of residential use surfaced in discussions with the planning board as well; the Portland Society of Architects suggested that the ban on residential development be lifted.  Allowing only commercial development such as office buildings and hotels, the society argued, won’t help existing hotels and office buildings downtown, while a mix of commercial and residential development would make the waterfront zone more diverse.

Over several months the board took a site walk, held two public forums and inventoried land, buildings, uses and employment in the central zone.

In July 2010 it adopted a vision statement for the area to the effect that development “will achieve a balance where non-marine economic development benefits the piers, the waterfront and the city by sustaining marine infrastructure, protecting opportunity for commercial marine activity, and promoting appropriate access by the public to views and activities in Portland Harbor.”

The planning board didn’t endorse residential development but left the door open, commenting that such uses aren’t necessarily incompatible with marine uses.

All in all, the statement was in stark contrast with the marine-only rules adopted in the late 1980s, which reserve ground floors entirely for marine uses and ban recreational vessels from taking up berthing space.

The pier owners’ efforts and the planning board statement didn’t go unnoticed. In mid-July, lobsterman Willis Spear, who has fished out of Cousins Island all his life, convinced 70 fellow fishermen to sign a petition opposing any plan to allow recreational vessels to berth at the downtown piers now reserved for commercial boats. The change would likely drive up the cost of berthing space and make it harder for fishermen to find affordable places to store their traps and tie up at night, he told the Portland Press Herald. “If you don’t take a stand somewhere, people take advantage of you-and eventually you lose your livelihood.”

A month after the petitions were presented to city council, without comment but likely fearing backlash, the pier owners dropped their request that the berthing rules be liberalized. Meanwhile, the effort to modify the zoning to allow other activities on the piers and along Commercial Street has inched forward through the series of workshops and hearings required under city rules.  Decisions are expected by early fall.

David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.