More Working Waterfront At Risk
by Dennis Damon
A few weeks ago I got a call from a Gloucester, Massachusetts resident who saw me in a DVD talking about Maine’s Working Waterfront Law. The 9 minute video titled, Maine’s Disappearing Working Waterfront, was produced by Green Flash Video of Nantucket, MA and was the creation of its founder, Tom McGlinn. I think you can still see it on YouTube.
The Gloucester resident wanted to talk with me about a proposal that would at the least change the face of Gloucester’s waterfront and at its extreme change the character of Gloucester forever. A developer wants to build a $75 million hotel on the shore of Gloucester harbor. In order to do it the site must be rezoned from “marine/industrial” to something less accommodating to commercial fishing.
Recognizing I am not now, nor have I ever been a resident of Gloucester, I was reluctant to insert my views into a local situation in another state. At the same time I do have strong feelings about the loss of working waterfront, I do understand its value to the commercial fishing industry and I did sponsor two bills in the Maine Legislature that became law and are now helping to protect our working waterfront from extinction.
I decided to write an open letter to the Gloucester Planning Board and it was read into the public record at the hearing conducted by the Planning Board. I share it with you now.
Dear Planning Board Members:
My name is Dennis Damon. You will note by the return address of this letter that I do not live in your fair city. In fact, I live in a small town on the coast of down-east Maine.
Nevertheless, your deliberations on the issue of re-zoning “The Fort” are of particular interest to me. You see a few years ago, while I was serving in the Maine Senate, I sponsored legislation which I hoped would protect and preserve the few areas along our coast that still supported our commercial fishing industry.
At the time of my efforts the inventory of working waterfront areas along our 5,000 miles of coastline totaled but 25 miles. One half of one percent of our coast was available to provide the access necessary for our fishermen and women to go to work and a place where they could return at the end of their trip. One half of one percent of our coast was available where they could land their catch, where they could make their repairs, where they supply their boats for their work at sea.
It had not always been that way. In my youth there were far more wharfs and access points where boats could land. But the slow and steady creep of coastal development gradually consumed those traditional fishing areas. People with unimagined wealth were drawn to the sea’s edge to build homes. Often paying tens-of-times more than we considered the property to be worth, they came and we sold. I would scratch my head and shake it in amazement thinking, “They’ve got more dollars than sense!” Yet they came and they kept coming and we kept putting the prospect of short-term profit before any thoughts of the longer-term loss and we kept selling. Indeed, we didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.
Adding to the problem was the proliferation of business development on the coast. Hotels, motels and condominiums, large and small, began to spring up like dandelions on a spring lawn. They were everywhere. Our coastal communities, recognizing the potential property tax revenues and being constrained by our state constitution taxed a rickety old lobster trap wharf, not at its current use but at its highest and best use. The supposed ‘highest and best’ use was determined to be as a hotel or a condo or a multi-million dollar mansion. Property taxes rose beyond the average person’s ability to pay. Then they were forced to sell their land, often land that had been in their families for generations, their land that had provided them access to the sea, to their heritage, was sold because they could afford to keep it no longer.
The Working Waterfront legislation I sponsored was passed by the Legislature and is now the law in Maine. Working waterfront, land and buildings that support our commercial fishing industry, is now assessed at its current use and is taxed thusly. Working waterfront owners are allowed, even encouraged, to place covenants on their property so that when it is sold it must still support the commercial fishing industry.
Although Massachusetts may not have a Working Waterfront Law per se, you have created zones in your towns that accommodate certain activities. The fishing and marine related industry has been a vital part of Gloucester’s economy and your heritage for centuries. It has long defined you. When talking of the fishing industry in New England, Gloucester, New Bedford, Portland, Point Judith, Rockland, Stonington all come to mind as the most notable fishing ports in the Gulf of Maine. To your credit you have recognized the importance of that and have established marine/industrial zones which serve your fishing industry. Good that you have done that.
Now comes a new opportunity, one that touts economic promise for your city. One that diversifies your economy. Your mayor, Carolyn Kirk, has spoken eloquently of the need for Gloucester to diversify its economy. She recognizes the necessity of that strategy. So do I and so should you. The potential benefit to your economy from the development of a $75 million destination resort complex is alluring. But here’s where it gets tricky. You are now exactly at the point where; ‘if you don’t recognize what you’ve got, you will lose it’.
When it comes to understanding a community I often refer to it as a collective quilt that defines that place. Each fiber, each thread is carefully woven and integrated into the construction of that quilt and each quilt is unique. Each community is unique. Its people are unique. Its properties are unique. Its character is unique. When any one of the threads is removed or when another pattern is added the face of the quilt changes. If an important thread is pulled out the entire quilt becomes weakened. The risk is - that it will fall apart.
Rather than a quilt I see Gloucester being held together, appropriately, by a net … a fishing net. In this vision if meshes are cut out a hole is created. A net with holes loses its strength and its integrity. Even if the hole is small the net is subjected to further damage. When there are holes in the net the goodness within, all that you have captured over time, escapes. All that you have worked so hard to catch … is lost. The trip is a bust because the net is hauled back empty. That’s not what you want for your community. Don’t cut out meshes in your net by rezoning The Fort. Don’t let all of Gloucester’s rich heritage, history and culture slip out through your net!