The other life of farmer Charles Woodman

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:46 p.m.

All right. I wasn’t the greatest reporter in the world when I covered the midcoast area for the BDN for 30-odd years. But I did take a fierce pride in my ability to recognize a story when it bit me in my back pockets.

Like Charles Woodman.

Woodman was a retired science teacher and a gentle rhododendron farmer in Appleton. He was a bird-watcher and a member of the town conservation commission. Over the years, even before there was a Department of Environmental Protection, Woodman dug a number of farm ponds on his property. He was partway through a 1-acre pond when a new law was passed in the 1970s governing the process.

The farmer should have applied for a permit for the partial pond, as was required. Everyone agreed to that, even Woodman. But he didn’t apply, assuming that the activity was already grandfathered under the law. So he finished the 1-acre pond, which became home to fish, birds, frogs and the biggest horseflies you have ever seen.

There was a fuss and feud with a neighbor. The neighbor reported Woodman and his new pond to the DEP. You would not believe what happened. The DEP said the illegal pond had to be removed. Woodman and the state agency went round and round for years and years. The Maine Superior Court, then the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, agreed with the DEP in 1997 and ordered the pond removed.

The removal of a functioning farm pond made no sense to Woodman. It would create a bigger mess than he ever made and cost an estimated $40,000. Under court order, he contacted several contractors who all answered “no thanks.”

This went on for years.

It became a big story when the Maine Militia, Common Sense for Maine Forests, Unorganized Territories United and the Maine Libertarian Party all decided to get involved. One Saturday afternoon, Woodman appeared embarrassed as a 45-car caravan visited his farm for a fundraiser. They raised $10,000 to fight the DEP that afternoon.

Even the DEP admitted that Woodman’s pond was not another Love Canal. “I wish it was over,” said Brook Barnes of the DEP enforcement division. Barnes admitted at the time that Woodman’s pond “is not the hugest environmental disaster in the world,” and that the agency could have handled the situation better. “But the time for that is over. He is now under a court order to remove the pond. All the remedies have been exhausted and it would be better to take it out.”

One of my very favorite state legislators, Lawrence Nash (he could actually ski backward) said, “It has been a comedy of errors on both sides ever since. It never should have come to this. The DEP decided to flex its muscles and has been very uncooperative, arrogant and unfriendly.”

But in the end, Charlie Woodman won. He died this week, at age 86. He was fined by the DEP and spent a small fortune on legal bills, but his farm pond stayed. It was there on the day he died.

Perhaps the DEP, like me, underestimated Woodman. I missed half of the story.

According to his newspaper obituary, Woodman served in the 104th Infantry and fought through France, Belgium, Holland and finally Germany. He brought home a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Medal. He never mentioned any of that.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a master’s from Northeastern University and a doctorate from Boston University. He certainly never mentioned any of that.

He worked for General Electric and taught physics at Wakefield High School. He was a tough and active outdoorsman, and enjoyed downhill and cross-country skiing and tennis into his 60s. He sailed his sloop on Penobscot Bay and climbed Mount Katahdin and Mount Rainier at age 57.

He fought for his farm pond. He won.

Good life, Charlie.

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