AUGUSTA, Maine — At a public hearing Thursday, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection upheld a state permit allowing a Woolwich couple to remove about 150 historic pilings from Popham Beach near their summer home.
After a four-hour hearing, the board voted 6-1 to deny an appeal of the permit.
About 40 people attended the meeting at the Augusta Civic Center, including Jack and Susan Parker, who planned to remove the pilings, and the Phippsburg Board of Selectmen, who are among those who tried to prevent their removal by appealing to the citizen board.
In 2012, Jack Parker, CEO of Reed & Reed Construction, purchased and renovated a home at 30 Sea St., near the pilings.
Parker subsequently received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to remove the pilings, which he argues causes erosion at the beach.
But homeowners Rafael and Victoria Villamil and Ethan DeBery, along with the town of Phippsburg, appealed the DEP permit in July.
Among their objections were that significant wildlife habitats as defined by the Natural Resources Protection Act have been identified in the area and that the pilings are historic because they formerly supported a pier used from the 1880s to about 1911 by a ferry service.
They argued that removing the pilings — Parker proposes to remove them with barge-mounted equipment including a clamshell bucket and/or a vibratory extractor — could damage the sand dunes, and the creosote coating on the pilings could cause damage.
Jessica Maher, who represents the appellants, told the board on Thursday that the Villamils and Parkers are “equally situated abutters,” and the issues of one abutter shouldn’t outweigh those of the other.
She argued that reports submitted by the Parkers cite “conflicting” science and conflicting suggestions about what could happen if the pilings are removed.
“The point is, this is all rather uncertain,” Maher said. “There’s no clear conclusion, at least not one that I can come up with. [The Maine Geological Survey ] refuses to make a definitive conclusion about what will happen when the pilings are removed, if they are removed.
“I urge you to look at the science and see if you can come up with enough evidence to demonstrate that there is no risk,” she continued.
The appellants also argued that the Parkers hadn’t established ownership of the pilings, and therefore couldn’t apply for a permit to remove them.
The board allowed additional material to be submitted before the hearing, including letters from residents, the Phippsburg Historical Preservation Commission and the Phippsburg HIstorical Society Museum.
“Every other property owner in the adjacent areas wants the pilings to remain undisturbed,” Connie Shiebler wrote to the board. “They matter, greatly, to hundreds of people. How can this possibly be a reasonable and correct action,” Shiebler wrote.
“You are being hoodwinked by some science, governmental oversight and self-serving rich folk,” Loren Hunter of Popham Road wrote, adding later, “The cozyness of the DEP and the Reed & Reed hierarchy is unquestionably part of this system.”
On Thursday, Jack and Susan Parker appeared before the board with their attorney, Juliet Browne, and project engineer Nathan Dill of Ransom Engineering.
Browne argued that the purpose of the Natural Resources Protection Act is to protect resources from man-made activity, adding, “The appellants here are standing NRPA on its head and trying to protect a human, man-made intrusion into the resource,” she said.
Browne said three studies came to similar conclusions, and that NRPA permits don’t require absolute certainty of what the future effects of the action will be.
She argued that the pilings have been identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on charts as a hazard.
Making a motion to uphold the permit, board member Kathleen Chase said that while the land is owned by the state, the state does not own the pilings “and [The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] has said they have no interest in the pilings, but had no objection if the Parkers wanted to remove them.”
Parkers permit allows him four years to remove the pilings, but he must complete the work between November and April to lessen the environmental impact.
Following the vote, Parker said he had no plans to remove the pilings this year.
Bill Hanley of Phippsburg said the board had taken into account “way too conflicting information” and said the town should have been allowed to vote on the outcome.
“The process did not give equivalent adjacent owners, the Villamils, any say,” Phippsburg resident Dot Kelly said. “They weren’t even mentioned.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this report listed an incorrect total for the board’s vote.