February 16, 2019
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Groups clash over local river referendum

Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
Signs in York advocate for "Yes" and "No" on the local referendum Question 2.

It’s hard to miss the conflicting orange signs that have popped up everywhere in town these days, one urging people to protect the York River by voting yes on town ballot Question 2 and one recommending a no vote for fear of a “fed takeover.”

Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
Chuck Ott

At issue is a ballot measure that seeks voter approval to do essentially two things. The first is to accept the 135-page York River Watershed Stewardship Plan, an advisory plan crafted by a study committee of residents in the watershed towns of York, Kittery, Eliot and South Berwick. Voters will also be asked if they want the river to be designated a federal Wild and Scenic Partnership River.

Question 2 has many proponents, who say designation will ensure the York River will remain the pristine river it is today even as invasive species, sea level rise and other environmental threats chart an uncertain future. But a vocal group of opponents have myriad concerns, chief among them the fact the federal government via the National Park Service will be involved in the management of the York River.

The York Weekly provides an analysis of what is behind the language in Question 2, as well as comments from those for and against the measure.

Wild and Scenic Partnership Rivers

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed by Congress in 1968 as a means to protect rivers that ran primarily through federal National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property. But “we always envisioned other opportunities out there,” said Jamie Fosburgh, resource planner at the National Park Service. Fosburgh has been involved in all 13 partnership river plans in New England.

Fosburgh said the opportunity was to protect rivers that flow through primarily private land instead of federal land. New England towns led the way in the development of what would become the “Partnership” Wild and Scenic River program. “It took a bunch of us a long time to figure out how to do that,” he said. “But we came to realize that the river could be protected with local management.”

By 1986, language was included in the original act to allow for this new partnership model. Under its terms, a group of local residents first study the river to determine whether it meets criteria to be a designated wild and scenic river. In York, this study committee just completed its work, voted unanimously that the river was worth designation, and wrote the stewardship plan up for voter consideration Nov. 6.

The plan then wends its way before voters, then before Congress, before it is accepted into the program. Fosburgh said each plan is advisory in nature and tailored to the river. It is “is a master blueprint about what is important for the river. There’s a menu of things that could be pursued.” Local municipalities are free to adopt or not adopt the recommendations in the plan, he said.

Deb Cram | The York Weekly
Deb Cram | The York Weekly
Jennifer Hunter, coordinator of the York Wild and Scenic River Designation Committee, stands at Scotland Bridge in York.

The York River plan, for instance, zeroes in on three specific areas for further study and possible local action: the river’s historic and archeological significance; its natural resources; and community issues including recreational use and preservation of the working waterfront.

There are two “key provisions” included in every Partnership Wild and Scenic bill that comes before Congress, Fosburgh said. One prohibits the forced sale of private land for conservation purposes, called “condemnation.” The second, he said, requires the river to be managed according to the study committee’s plan.

“Those provisions are in all of the 13 partnership river acts,” he said.

The National Park Service absolutely plays a role in this agreement. Fosburgh and another NPS planner were ad hoc members of the study committee and the NPS will be at the table if the York River is designated wild and scenic. He said its role is twofold: it will “assist and advise” a new local stewardship committee that would form after designation; and it would help the committee to secure federal grants to conduct further studies.

“The most important thing to understand is that the NPS is not going to control or dictate anything after designation. That’s probably the hardest thing for people to grasp” because it is a federal program, he said. In fact, he said, since the York River Study Committee formed 2.5 years ago, the river has been temporarily under the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers program.

“And the town hasn’t seen the feds telling them what to do for the past couple of years,” he said.

Unconvinced

Not so fast, say those who oppose the measure. As Cider Hill Road resident Richard Sherman said, “We have not needed or invited federal oversight in 400 years. Why start now?”

Sherman joined Birch Hill Road residents David and Sharan Gross, daughter Amanda Bouchard and resident Michael Dow in sharing their thoughts about what they see as the flaws in this designation. Key among their concerns, they are opposed to what they see as another layer of bureaucracy dealing with the York River — particularly one that has a federal employee at the table.

“We have tons of restrictions on this land” imposed by the town of York, said Gross, whose family owns about 100 acres in the upper reaches of the river. He fears the stewardship committee will recommend even more town restrictions for land he said he manages perfectly well. “When is enough is enough? They’ve already taken away my land rights.”

“What do they need to protect?” said Bouchard. “I don’t want more restrictions. And I don’t see why we need federal money to preserve the river that it is in the top 1 percent” of rivers on the East Coast for its coastal resiliency. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“You don’t need another authority that you have to field as a landowner to protect your own property rights,” said Sherman. “It’s that simple.”

The group also worries the stewardship plan’s ultimate goal is to secure funding to purchase land on the river and take it out of the tax base. “We need to grow, too,” said Dave Gross. He said based on research he’s done, 28 percent of the town is today undeveloped. “When that’s done, what are we going to do?”

Further, said Dow, the study committee did not do enough outreach to property owners in the watershed as the study progressed. While the committee held public meetings and forums over the years, chairman Chuck Ott agrees if he had to do it over again, he would make sure the committee made even more efforts to zero in on these land owners.

Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
Opponents of the local Question 2 in York include, from left to right, Richard Sherman, Michael Dow and Dave and Sharan Gross.

And they worry that use of the river, already a destination for many kayakers and other paddlecraft, will explode with a Wild and Scenic destination, because some people zero in on wild and scenic rivers when making vacation plans. “We don’t want the upper reaches of the river to become an attraction,” said Dave Gross, in part because wildlife is often spooked by the presence of people.

Bouchard added, “If you have more people coming up here, where are they going to go to the bathroom? Where are they going to put their trash?”

The outweighing benefits

“Fair enough,” said Ott. The committee discussed what designation might mean in terms of increased use. But he points to a Harbor Board survey that showed paddlecraft use tripled between the summer of 2017 and 2018. “The people are already here,” he said. “And we’ve consulted other Wild and Scenic rivers and they have not reported an influx of new users because of the designation.

“To me, the question is, are we going to put our heads together as neighbors and talk to people about this and manage the river wisely?” he said. He agrees some people feel threatened by the word “manage.” “But is it threatening to think that all the citizens of four towns will have something to say about the protection and well being of the river?”

He said it’s important for voters to know there are “so many things” in the plan that are not regulatory. “There’s no ordinance that said we should study the archaeological resources. There’s no solution to invasive phragmites unless people are looking at the science and talking to one another. Ordinances aren’t going to deal with invasive species and sea level rise.”

One such invasive species is the green crab, and lobsterman Mike Sinclair said the York Lobstermen’s Association has funded a private study of its presence in the York River — an expensive proposition. A partnership designation, he said in a letter to the editor in today’s Weekly, “would make federal money available to fund other fishermen concerns on the York River,” which he said is “vital to the health of the entire Southern Maine fishing area.”

He and Selectman Robert Palmer both admit to being leery of big government, but both said they support this question. Among opponents of the measure, “I hear fear of the federal government, but sometimes that means fear of the unknown,” said Palmer. “While I understand that, it’s not like this is a one-off. There are 13 other rivers that have come before us.”

He mentioned a presentation to selectmen by a member of the committee managing the Lamprey River in New Hampshire, a wild and scenic river. She detailed the fact the federal government has never interfered in the committee’s work. “So I don’t have this fear, myself, because of that.”

The Planning Board also unanimously endorsed Question 2. Chairman Al Cotton said board members closely questioned study committee members about designation, “but they showed us the law as it pertains to this and what the role of the federal government would be. We see this as a new resource to help us deal with growth. The funding and resources would be beneficial.”

Ott said at some point during the past 2.5 years, committee members have wrestled with most of the questions raised by opponents of Question 2. “We held off until very recently making a recommendation” for designation. “All of these concerns we had to work through ourselves. But we were unanimous in the end. We use the word pristine and it’s a really good word in a lot of ways to describe this river. We need to make sure it stays that way. It’s intuitive to me to say, ‘Wow. We need to pay attention to this.’”

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