Neighbor to Pingrees’ island lodge claims town emails show bias against him

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree
Posted May 01, 2014, at 3:02 p.m.
Last modified May 01, 2014, at 3:17 p.m.
Hannah Pingree
Hannah Pingree

NORTH HAVEN, Maine — An attorney who lives in France and summers on this Penobscot Bay island claims that improper email communication between the town and a historic lodge owned by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree created a bias against him when he challenged an expansion of the neighboring business.

Steven Wolfram and Mullins Development Trust filed an appeal Wednesday in Knox County Superior Court of a March 17 decision by the North Haven Board of Appeals to uphold a permit issued for construction of a two-story building on the grounds of Nebo Lodge.

Nebo Lodge Real Estate LLC is owned by Pingree, but none of the emails involve her.

The lawmaker’s daughter Hannah Pingree, who oversees operations at the lodge, said she has tried repeatedly to work with Wolfram.

“I’ve always tried to be a good neighbor,” said Hannah Pingree, a former state representative and speaker of the Maine House.

She said that Wolfram bought a home across the road from the lodge in 2009 and initially complained about a ramshackle bungalow that was outside the lodge and about cardboard and other refuse being left outside. Pingree said that structure was torn down and is being replaced with a larger two-story building that will be used as an office and for storage, in part to meet Wolfram’s concerns about refuse being kept outside.

The lodge applied for a building permit and was granted it last fall, with construction beginning immediately. Wolfram appealed that decision on Dec. 11 and the appeals board ruled against him in March. Construction continued despite the appeal because the project adhered to ordinances, Hannah Pingree said Thursday. The 40-foot-by-26-foot building is nearly complete now, she said.

Wolfram, who is represented by attorneys Matthew Manahan and Catherine Connors of Portland, is asking the court to vacate the action of the board of appeals. Wolfram also is asking the court to order that Planning Board Chairwoman Pat Curtis refrain from participation in any subsequent review and that all members of both the planning and appeals boards declare whether they had communications with Nebo officials outside of the hearings.

The appeal filed in court on behalf of Wolfram includes emails that he states showed a bias against him. Those emails, which he received by filing a Freedom of Access request, included one from Town Administrator Joseph Stone to Hannah Pingree in which he refers to Wolfram as “tedious.” Another from the planning board chairwoman to Pingree stated, in reference to Wolfram, “Scary to know he’s a powerful lawyer, isn’t it?”

Wolfram said Thursday by telephone that when he bought his home in the summer of 2009, Nebo Lodge was a quiet bed and breakfast. It since has grown, and a commercial-size parking lot was built that has negatively affected the residential area in terms of traffic and noise, he said.

Pingree said the inn is still a modest size, with nine rooms as well as a restaurant and bar. She added that the parking lot has eight spaces.

Wolfram’s appeal also states that the lodge had exceeded the amount of structures it could have in the village district of North Haven before construction started on the new building.

Wolfram said he realizes he has been criticized by some on the island since he has challenged the lodge project but that this is a matter of the town enforcing both the spirit and the letter of the law.

“It’s easy to go after the outsider,” said Wolfram, who lives in France but is a U.S. citizen.

He stressed, however, that he was not trying to prevent economic growth and jobs on the island. He said that reasonable steps can be taken to mitigate expansion such as screening the parking lot.

“You can reconcile economic growth with the environment. No one has been a stronger supporter of the environment than Congresswoman Pingree,” he said. He further commented that his politics are Democratic.

Wolfram’s attorney Manahan said it was unfortunate that the lodge proceeded with construction of the building after his client notified it that he would appeal the permit, first to the planning board and then the appeals board.

Hannah Pingree said the town took all the steps necessary to make sure it was meeting ordinances, even finding four members to serve on the board of appeals for this case who had no connection to the lodge, her family or Wolfram. The town also hired attorney Paul Gibbons, who is experienced in municipal law, to assist in its review of the project.

A telephone message left Thursday morning for the planning board chairwoman was not immediately returned. Stone, the town administrator, said he had no comment on the email issue raised by Wolfram.

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