BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Paul Coulombe has big plans for Boothbay Harbor.
But some residents say they’re so big that they will forever change the character of this seaside enclave that for decades has mixed a working waterfront with modest motels, cottages and seafood joints geared primarily toward accommodating working-class summer vacationers.
That tension between a developer’s vision for improvements — that he says will elevate Boothbay Harbor’s profile as a top-end vacation destination — and opponents concerned that the town will sacrifice its character to become a playground for rich folks from away is playing out in a local fight over waterfront rezoning.
But behind the wrestling over ordinance language and planning maps, it’s really a struggle about change — which does not come easily on Maine’s coast.
‘Crazy … enough to take that risk’
Two years after completing the transformation of the former Boothbay Harbor Country Club and the former Rocktide Restaurant and Inn into the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Country Club that dominates the east side of the harbor, Coulombe now hopes renovations on his most recent acquisitions — Cap’n Fish’s Waterfront Inn and the The Lobster Dock restaurant — will be underway by early next year, bringing to fruition his vision for an upgraded east side of the harbor better suited to attract wealthy tourists.
Promoting the project as Boothbay Harbor East Side (“It’s time to invest in the future … revitalize the East Side!”), Coulombe has proposed rezoning the east side of the harbor — currently a maritime-water dependent district — to a mixed-use district from just south of a footbridge adjacent to Coulombe’s Oceanside hotel to Carousel Marina, to allow for businesses that are not marine-based.
Coulombe said Tuesday he has purchased The Lobster Dock, also in that district, and expects to close on Cap’n Fish’s in November. Both are legally nonconforming structures that would become legal under the proposal.
“I’m the only guy crazy enough or willing to take that risk,” he said of purchasing the properties with their current zoning.
An advisory board to develop a proposed ordinance and present it to the full Planning Board was appointed by Planning Board Chairman William Hamblen. It includes Hamblen, town residents, other members of the planning board, the Lincoln County planner — Boothbay Harbor has no town planner — and Daniel Bacon, a senior staff member with Gorrill Palmer Consulting Engineers who is contracted by Coulombe, according to the town’s code enforcement officer.
The board has met for eight months, and held more than 12 meetings and public hearings as part of an effort to develop a recommendation for the entire Planning Board to consider sending to the Board of Selectmen, which could then send a proposed ordinance to townspeople for a vote.
Coulombe, who during the past six years has purchased more than 50 properties in Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor and Southport, has become a lightning rod for much of the controversy, and doesn’t shirk from speaking bluntly both in public and in online comments.
A Lewiston native, Coulombe took over his family business, White Rock Distilleries, in 1995. In 2012, he sold it to the parent company of Jim Beam, according to the website for Boothbay Village Square, another of Coulombe’s Boothbay developments. He retired and built an 18,000-square-foot estate on the west coast of Pratt’s Island off nearby Southport that reportedly cost $30 million.
Coulombe has donated extensively to a number of charitable organizations in the Boothbay area, which spokeswoman Michelle Amero previously said is driven, like his investments, by his love for the region developed when visiting the area with his family as a child.
In November, he told the Boothbay Register he planned to spend $25 million to $35 million in the next two or three years, bringing $1.25 million to $1.75 million in taxes to the town. He said he had already spent “close to $100 million to bolster the economy and support public institutions.”
Coulombe said his opponents find the existing hotels in town adequate, but he argued they won’t attract world travelers.
“Oceanside [the former Rocktide] is a step closer, but it’s still not even a four-star [hotel]. It’s a three-star,” he said. “I just don’t want to have outside hallways or air conditioners sticking out of the windows. The point is to have nice amenities and nice hotels. We really don’t have them.
“I just sold a sailboat to the head guy from [international investment firm] T. Rowe Price,” he said. “Now he wants to move here. I told him I would take care of his sailboat, because he likes to sail and play golf. He had been thinking of going to Bar Harbor.”
Last Monday, Coulombe told the Bangor Daily News he hoped Boothbay residents would have the opportunity to vote on the rezoning this year, maybe as soon as October. He said he expects it to pass.
If so, he hopes to have Cap’n Fish’s and the Lobster Dock renovated into exclusive hotels by 2021 or 2022.
‘Enemies … for life’
But, as with previous Coulombe developments — including the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort, a roundabout in the center of neighboring Boothbay and a proposed deepwater dock at his Pratt’s Island home off Southport — a number of residents are concerned about the impact the changes would have on the town and its working waterfront.
In May, Susan and George Craig, who live in Boothbay Harbor, took out a full-page ad in the Boothbay Register titled “Another Option.”
The Craigs offered to donate the first $1 million to purchase the Cap’n Fish property, with the remaining $2 million of the sale price to be covered with fundraising. They agreed to donate the land to the town for use as a public waterfront park, public docks and commercial fishing docks.
“We were astonished by the groundswell of support,” Susan Craig said Wednesday.
John and Lynne Seitzer, longtime residents of Boothbay and owners of Joy to the Wind, an art gallery directly across Atlantic Avenue from Coulombe’s Oceanside hotel, gave the Board of Selectmen copies of emails they had received from Coulombe that they described as “threatening.”
The Seitzers said Wednesday that they had participated in meetings about the proposed changes and worried that “a few members of the board seemed predetermined to ignore our concerns.”
Their concerns included adhering to the town’s comprehensive plan, updated in 2015, which outlines its vision through 2024, including retaining its working waterfront through a maritime-water dependent district.
They continued to raise questions, John Seitzer said, and then on April 24, Coulombe sent them an email, which Seitzer provided to the Bangor Daily News, telling them that while he might previously have bought art from their gallery for his hotel and other properties, “you have decided to bet against Coulombe and progress for the community. You have chosen to forsake a positive relationship with me … your business could prosper but you have chosen to fight against me for no real reason except your own archaic personal fears. You have chosen to be an enemy of mine for life, that will not bode well for you financially. I am willing to give you one last chance to support me in my revisions of the ordinances and zoning. If not then you will always have an uphill battle with me. Not your best choice.”
Now, Susan Craig said, “People here seem afraid to speak … There are people who feel like he could really hurt them. I suppose if you have $800 million, you could really hurt people.”
Late last month 75 residents organized as Friends of Boothbay Harbor wrote to the Board of Selectmen expressing concerns that the rezoning proposal would “devastate” marine businesses and create a dock shortage for lobstermen.
“We feel it’s at that point that we need to be very, very careful on how we educate the community before any warrants are put forward to the town for a vote,” Ken Fitch wrote to the board.
Coulombe countered that most of the town’s fishermen sell at the Sea Pier and the Boothbay Lobster Wharf which, while they would be subject to the changes, Coulombe doesn’t own.
Boothbay Harbor Town Manager Thomas Woodin said Tuesday that November may be a bit optimistic as a referendum date, and suggested that by the time the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, town attorney and Board of Selectmen play their parts and the public weighs in at hearings, a vote might more likely take place at next May’s regular town meeting.
Woodin on Tuesday acknowledged “a level of extreme pushing” from Coulombe, but said neither his approach — which includes posting online proposed warrant articles for a town meeting that could be nearly a year away — nor the “background noise” on social media and other online commenting would deter town staff from a careful, thoughtful proposal to present to the public.
“We’re trying to remain focused on creating a good product and then let the townspeople vote,” he said. “A lot of people have made up their minds, and they don’t even know what the [proposal] will be.”
Woodin said he thinks most people would agree that Coulombe’s renovations so far have “been beautiful,” but added, “When you live in a small town, you have the people who don’t want change, whether it’s good or not.”
He said Coulombe brings a lot of the criticism on himself, noting that while he has mounted an effective social media campaign, his “personal interactions with [some] people have been very unpleasant and unnecessary and, unfortunately, it muddles the whole process.”
“The roundabout [process] got very personal,” he said. “I like to think we’re handling it more civilly.
“The roundabout was so contentious, and still is, even though it works fine,” he said. “It was change, and the particular personality of the developer. That has a lot to do with which side people take.”
Coulombe said last Monday that he hopes residents will attend Board of Selectmen meetings or public luncheons he’s hosting at the golf club to learn about the project he proposes, that he said “would be done in the proper context of Boothbay Harbor. It would be done in good taste.”
Whatever ends up going to the voters, Woodin said, “We’re all going to get to vote on it, and we all get one vote.”
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Correction: A previous version of this report gave an incorrect location for the site of Paul Coulombe's estate on Pratt's Island.