Port District, city should retool their relationship for greater coordination

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Nov 03, 2016

Capt. Richard Spear was not surprised when no one immediately pulled papers to run for the Rockland Port District. Competitive elections for the board are rare, he said, and it’s more common that potential candidates have to be cajoled to collect signatures.

The state created Rockland’s Port District in the early 1950s and revised its charter (along with the city’s) in an emergency measure in 1957. By statute, the Port District was given the authority to borrow money and to assess special taxes in order to coordinate marine “passenger and freight transportation” in the harbor.

The '50s were a decade of waterfront changes for Rockland, as the ferry service was being consolidated in its current location and there was much jurisdictional jockeying between the local, state and federal governments. The ferry service, properly the domain of the very new Port District, was taken from its control very early in its existence.

Despite a fairly expansive statutory role, the Port District has passed most of its responsibilities to the city of Rockland over the years. The city currently manages most of these projects from the Public Landing, including the cruise ship business (which is pretty clearly “passenger transportation”). The state’s 1957 charter amendment expressly forbids the city to “exercise [such] authority” of the Port District, but the district has an agreement with the city to manage such marine traffic.

As the waterfront area has transitioned away from fish-packing (with its attendant smells), the demand for passenger service (for example, windjammer sails, cruise ships) has increased.

The Port District has only recently begun to exercise any physical presence in the harbor. Spear, who has been an elected member of the board since 1954, noted that the Lermond’s Cove marina is the Port District’s first major project. When I sat down with the captain and Ed Glaser, who has served on the port district for the past decade (and whose position is open this year), they sketched how the harbor’s changing uses has created an opportunity for the Port District to continue to help facilitate such projects with the city, including, for example, working with the city to rebuild the Public Landing.

The Lermond’s Cove marina offers a model for what the Port District can accomplish, leveraging its borrowing power to respond to a demonstrated need for passenger transportation. For nearly a decade, the Port District worked to turn the cove from a shallow and unnavigable cove into a vibrant windjammer marina (managed by the Maritime Traditions Group). This required jumping through governmental hoops (one piece required an act of Congress), as well as natural ones (the cove itself had to be dredged).

The Port District financed the project by borrowing money, which is being repaid entirely through the lease fees that Maritime Traditions Group pays. (One of its members, Noah Barnes, is currently running for the Port District.) This project created a protected home for the windjammers and maintained a strong tourist attraction with zero tax impact.

As the diversity of uses in Rockland’s harbor increases, it becomes more essential to re-evaluate the relationship between the city and the port district. Currently city-port district coordination is limited. With the increased desire for passenger traffic in the harbor, especially cruise ships, the role of the port district in harbor management should be re-evaluated, clarified and integrated into the city’s overall waterfront plans. As part of this re-evaluation, the city and port district should actively discuss the roles and purposes for each entity.

By statute, the Port District could certainly play a larger role than it does currently, including entirely managing the cruise ship traffic. Despite the port district’s extensive statutory authority, the charter and code of the city are largely silent on the role the Port District plays in the harbor more generally, as is the Comprehensive Plan’s marine chapter. This is true even for some items which might, depending on implementation, be the responsibility of the Port District.

The current situation, in which the city exercises most of the responsibilities of the port district, is an efficient use of our harbor space, but is governed by an agreement and not by statute. As the city continues to develop and refine its waterfront policies, it’s vital that this question of who has jurisdictional responsibility and why be addressed, even if this means revisiting the language and purpose of the district’s charter on a state level.

Key questions that should be addressed about the relationship: to what extent should the city drive harbor transportation policy and to what extent should the Port District? To what extent should the Port District direct or manage the daily activities of the harbor? Should local policy or state statute determine the authority of the harbor? While these questions currently have been informally answered between the city and the district, the lack of revision to the statute leaves a potential jurisdictional crisis.

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