October 22, 2019
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Effort to stall removal of historic Popham Beach pilings remains in limbo

Courtesy of Bill Hanley
Courtesy of Bill Hanley
Pilings set deep in the sand near the northern end of Popham Beach are all that remain of the Boston Boat pier and the state pier, which according to historians was used by the Eastern Steamship Company boats from the 1880s until 1911. Neighbors and other Phippsburg residents objected when Jack Parker, whose house looks out over the pilings, applied to remove the pilings.

PHIPPSBURG, Maine — Despite a summer of controversy, and perhaps hoping to reduce boiling tensions with neighbors to a simmer, Reed & Reed CEO Jack Parker said Friday that he’s still not sure whether he’ll wait for an appeal process to play out before he removes about 150 historic but dilapidated wood pilings near his Popham Beach home.

Parker, who with his wife, Susan, built a large home on Sea Street in 2012, could begin removing the pilings as soon as Nov. 8, according to a permit granted in November 2016 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

But in July, the town of Phippsburg and a handful of residents appealed a state permit granted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. A decision on that appeal is unlikely before December.

The deteriorating pilings, set in the intertidal zone diagonally off the Parkers’ home, once supported a pier used by the Eastern Steamship Co., a major early 20th century shipping firm. They are located below mean low water and are thus owned by the state of Maine, according to a draft order from the Maine DEP.

The Army Corps of Engineers found no signs indicating why the pilings were historic when it approved removal last November. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued its permit in June of this year.

Parker said in his application, and at a public meeting last November, that he wants to remove the pilings because they are a navigation hazard and create “eddying,” which causes the ocean to “scour” a small inlet near the pilings. With rising sea levels, he hopes “to protect the beach from erosion,” he said, according to meeting minutes.

According to a 2012 report commissioned by Parker prior to building his house, “the shoreline at the site is relatively stable compared to beaches to the south” and the removal of the pilings will likely cause the concave section of the beach to fill in and “accelerate the straightening of the beach.”

Parker proposes to extract or break off, then remove the pilings with a “vibratory extractor” and clamshell bucket handled by a barge-mounted crane over the course of about a week. They’ll then be moved for sale or disposal.

But opponents of the removal, including the Phippsburg Harbor Commission, the Phippsburg Conservation Commission and more than two dozen residents who signed a petition to save the pilings, say they are a key component of Popham’s history, likely help prevent erosion and that removing them could disturb critical fish habitats.

Two of the appellants, Victoria and Rafael Villamil, whose house on Popham abuts the Parkers’ property, say their house is more affected by the pilings than the Parkers’, and they believe the pilings have likely prevented erosion in front of their house like that experienced on other parts of Popham.

“Their house is safe and they know it,” Victoria Villamil said. “Ours may not be, because of the uncertainty that accompanies the removing of the pilings.”

Opponents also cite Parker’s 2012 report, which notes that a two-foot rise in sea level would not damage the house.

“When we sit in our living room, I do not look forward to seeing Mr. Parker’s boat or boats as part of my scenic view,” she said in August. “According to the NOAA charts, those pilings have never been a hazard to navigation in 120 years of existence. There’s been not one recorded accident. All this goes to show that the removal of these pilings is a ‘favor’ to Mr. Parker so he can more easily maneuver the anchoring of his boats in front of his property.”

Of rumors that Parker wants the pilings gone in order to build a dock for his boat, Parker told The Boston Globe in August: “I have a mooring around the corner. And the notion of wanting to build a dock and spend the summer chasing people off of it is just plain crazy.”

In the ongoing appeal process, the state Board of Environmental Protection, made up of citizen appointees, will determine whether to allow supplemental evidence from either side — which happens “under narrow, limited circumstances,” according to Assistant Attorney General Peggy Bensinger. The board will then rule on the appeal.

Should the board find the DEP erred in issuing the permit, it would be revoked, Bensinger said.

But because the permit becomes valid when it is issued, Parker is free to move forward with removing the pilings according to the conditions of the ACOE Permit, which restrict him to Nov. 8 to April 9. Bensinger said the appellants could file for a stay that would effectively “freeze” the permit, but have not done so.

“Most people in this situation who have a permit, knowing there’s an appeal, they hold off,” she said. “It’s rare that someone acts on a permit under appeal.”

Bensinger said it’s hard to tell what would happen should Parker remove the pilings and the permit then be revoked. Typically a permit is to build, she said, and if a permit is revoked the structure must be torn down.

“Here it would be kind of tough to put deteriorating pilings back into the subsurface,” she said.

Town officials wrote to Parker asking that he wait for the appeal process to conclude before removing the pilings, but Town Administrator Amber Jones said Wednesday that she never received a response.

Given the submissions and responses involved in the appeals process, executive analyst Cindy Bertocci of the Board of Environmental Protection said Friday that the soonest the appeal would be heard by the board would be December.

Reached through his attorney on Friday, Parker wrote in an email, “No decision has been made on whether we will remove the piling[s] as soon as the work window opens.”

He declined to comment further on the record.



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