PHIPPSBURG — The fate of the remnants of an old pier that has sat along Popham Beach for over 100 years could be decided at a Dec. 7 meeting of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection.

The meeting comes after intense effort by residents of the small village at the end of the peninsula, who have vocally opposed the plan to remove the pilings. Jack Parker, owner of property adjacent to the pilings at 30 Sea St., applied for and received permitting to remove the structure from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

The controversy first started in November 2016, when a Phippsburg Select Board meeting was attended by over a dozen Phippsburg residents who learned of Parker’s applications for permits to remove the pilings.

At the meeting, Parker stated his motivation stems solely from his, and an engineering consultant’s, determination that the pilings are a primary cause of erosion along the beach. “What I’m concerned about is the erosion, it really is,” said Parker.

Now, over a year later, Parker reiterates his concern continues to be, and has always been, erosion and the future of the beach.

“Nothing has changed on our end. It is all about removing the scour and erosion impacts caused by the pilings,” wrote Parker in an email. “Sea levels are rising at increasing rates, storm frequencies and intensities are increasing and returning the beach to its natural state is the best way to preserve it. We love the beach as much as anyone. To us it’s a choice of protecting the beach or protecting the pilings.”

An appeal filed by the Town of Phippsburg asserts that proof of erosion is not conclusive enough to justify removing the pilings, which many see as a historical and aesthetic asset for the community.

This aerial photo shows regional scouring on the beach, which Jack Parker and the Ransom Engineering report he commissioned believe is caused by the pilings. Photo courtesy of Jack Parker

A meeting over the summer filled Popham’s small community library with concerned residents who felt the pilings should stay as they are. Ongoing fundraising campaigns to pay for legal fees – which the town is not putting any money towards – and an online petition have sprung up as a result of the meeting, among other things. Many said the beach should be left alone, and that the ebb and flow of sand is just part of how Popham is.

“The beach here changes constantly, to have a report that kind of says it could impact the scour and the erosion, I think a lot of people felt there needed to be much more substantial site-specific research to show that,” said Barbara Keltonic, a resident who helped write the appeal to the DEP permit. “Several people around that stretch of the beach have said, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t break it.’”

One landowner in particular, Rafael Villamil, lives adjacent to Parker’s property and opposes the project. He’s commented repeatedly at meetings, and said he believes the pilings protect their property, rather than endanger it.

“Our part of the beach, our house and the two houses next to us, have never had major storm damage,” said Villamil in an interview in June. “Our house has never been flooded or damaged in a storm for the 70 years that we have known and owned the house.”

He attributes that relative safety, compared to houses farther south, to the pilings.

“The pilings, I feel, are part of that protection. Not the whole thing, but they are part of that protection,” he said.

Others in opposition to the proposal have expressed their disapproval in less savory ways. Parker said at a community meeting in June that he received threats and had protesters on his lawn. Accusations that he wants to remove the pilings because they’re an “eyesore” or because he wants to build a dock at the location have also continued.

“We have experienced the full range of opposition from folks who were polite and thoughtful, to vandals, intruders and stalkers,” he said. “When people have nothing substantive to add to a debate, they sometimes resort to personal attacks, some of which have been particularly odious.”

As for a dock, Parker denied the idea as early as November 2016.

The meeting at 9 a.m. Dec. 7, at the Augusta Civic Center, 76 Community Drive, will feature the board hearing arguments from Parker and the appellants, but does not include a public comment period.

Board of Environmental Protection Executive Analyst Cindy Bertocci said the board will examine the materials presented by both sides of the argument when making a decision. In this case, the chair of the board has allowed some supplemental materials that were not initially part of the DEP permitting process to be entered into the record.

Key parts of the argument against the removal will likely reference the “existing uses” portion of Maine’s 480-D statute, which states that any permitted activity in a waterway “will not unreasonably interfere with existing scenic aesthetic, recreational or navigational uses.”

Keltonic said the sheer number of photographs and paintings of the pilings is a good indication of their aesthetic value to the community. A popular Facebook page, “I love Popham Beach,” frequently contains pictures of the old pier, which have been photographed and painted for decades.

“They’re iconic,” said Keltonic.

Another issue is the title, right, or interest on the pilings. Because the pilings are located below the mean low-tide, ownership of them technically belongs to the state. The appeal states the Parkers haven’t documented their title, right, or interest in removing the pilings.

In the end, the board will choose between a few separate determinations. They can either affirm the permit, affirm it with some additional conditions, reverse the DEP’s decision and deny the permit, remand the permit back to the DEP for additional processing, or hold a hearing on the subject if the record isn’t complete.
“Assuming the board either reverses or affirms, whoever doesn’t like that decision can appeal to Superior Court,” said Bertocci.

Both parties have said they will make any decision on appeal or removal after Dec. 7.

“There will be decision on Dec. 7, one way or the other,” said Keltonic.

Parker also said he’s going to wait on the board’s decision. “We will wait to see what the Board of Environmental Protection decides before we make any plans.”
For more information on the appeal, visit www.phippsburg.com and click the “Popham Pilings Page” link. For more information on the board meeting, visit www.maine.gov/dep/bep.