PHIPPSBURG

Following more than four hours of arguments and deliberation, Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection voted 6-1 to deny an appeal spearheaded by the town of Phippsburg to stop Jackson and Susan Parker from removing the Popham pilings.

“We are pleased at the outcome,” said Jackson Parker in a statement. “We thought the DEP did a thorough review of the application and the board affirmed that today by denying the appeal.”

“My reaction is shock and despair,” said Phippsburg resident Dot Kelly, who decried what she considered the lack of public input throughout the process.

The decision was also condemned on the Facebook page I LOVE Popham Beach, with some posting personal and/or expletive laden attacks against the Parkers.

Last September, the Parkers applied for permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Environmental Protection to remove the pilings, citing erosion of the beach as their main concern. The Parkers live in Woolwich, where Jackson is chief executive officer of Reed & Reed, but they also own a property at Popham Beach that overlooks the pilings.

The Army Corps of Engineers permit was granted quickly, but the DEP permit was not granted until June of this year, several months after the application had first been submitted. In the interim, there were a couple of meetings organized in the community to discuss opposition to their removal, both of which were attended by Parker.

After the DEP permit was granted, the Phippsburg selectmen filed a last-minute appeal, listing the town, Ethan Deberry and Rafael and Victoria Villamil, who are next-door neighbors to the Parkers and overlook the pilings as well, as the appellants. The appeal listed a number of reasons to overturn the permit: The scenic value and historical nature of the pilings, the lack of public comment or a public hearing, the failure to notify abutters, inconsistent data on the effect of removing the pilings, and the property rights status of the pilings.

The pilings are what remains of a pier used by the Eastern Steamship Lines company. Long since abandoned, the dilapidated pilings have slowly deteriorated over time. Many, however, find them aesthetically pleasing as a reminder of what used to be.

“One of their big concerns is that the pilings are a scenic resource in the town,” said attorney Jessica Maher, who spoke on behalf of the board of selectmen at the meeting.

The department, however, had previously determined that under National Recreation and Park Association guidelines the pilings were not scenic, and the board did not overturn that determination.

The appellants also tried to poke holes in research commissioned by the Parkers that purported to show that the pilings caused erosion, and that their removal would lead to soil accretion, returning the beach to a more natural state.

“Our feeling is that the evidence used by the applicant to demonstrate that is really conflicting and uncertain,” said Maher. “The town has contended that the reliance on the parts of the reports that the applicant has submitted are misplaced — that pieces of those reports seem to be used to support one thing, when other pieces of the report seem to support opposite findings.”

The appellants leaned heavily on a Maine Geological Survey report stating that it could not say with certainty how the removal of the piling would affect the beach.

“There’s no clear conclusion, at least not one that I can come up with,” Maher said. “MGS refuses to make a definitive conclusion about what will happen when the pilings are removed.”

But the Parkers’ lawyer, Juliet Browne, contended that certainty of what will happen once the pilings are removed is impossible and not at all necessary under the permitting guidelines.

“I think every expert appreciates the difficulty of predicting with certainty what will happen in dynamic coastal systems. But the department’s standards and NRPA don’t require absolute certainty as to what the impact of an action will be in the future,” said Browne. “But the department and the board need to rely on the best available evidence and science.”

Nathan Dill of Ransom Consulting, which conducted the study for the Parkers’ application, was on hand to affirm that their research showed that the removal of the pilings would lead to more soil accretion along the beach, filling in a concave area that had formed landside of the pilings.

“There is not a single other expert report in the record — there is no other technical evidence that supports a contrary conclusion,” said Browne.

The Villamils could not attend the meeting, but a letter was read on their behalf by Dot Kelly. Victoria Villamil declined to comment on the BEP decision, stating that she did not have enough time to formulate a response.

Dill also defended his claim in the study that the pilings were a navigational hazard, noting that the way the pilings were marked on navigational maps was the same way other objects that needed to be avoided would be marked. Berry, who operates a ferry in the area, scoffed at the idea that the pilings were a navigational hazard.

“That someone can look at a nautical chart, point to something on there and claim that to be a hazard to navigation without any evidence that it’s a hazard to navigation and the state of Maine will just let them tear it out,” he said.

In the end, the board’s decision came down to whether the Parkers had received permission from the state to remove the pilings. While the board’s chair argued that the Parkers never received explicit permission to remove the pilings, the board determined that the state had expressed that no permission was needed and that satisfied the permitting requirements.

Kelly said the board made the wrong decision.

“I thought we were a property rights kind of country. If you own it, you get to do things with it,” she said. “If you don’t own it, there are other people who get to decide and we try to do that in a just fair way, taking into account other people’s interests.”

Parker noted that at this point it was unlikely that he would move forward with the removal of the pilings until winter of next year.

“The permit window is Nov. 8 to April 1 and it is unlikely we will get the work done this winter,” he said.

The permit allows the Parkers three more years to remove the pilings before they would have to reapply for the permit.

Kelly said that she is hopeful that even though the board ruled against them, the Parkers will hear their arguments and, maybe, not remove the pilings.

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