The York River as seen in this Portsmouth Herald file photo. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

YORK, Maine — Of all the questions on the local May 18 ballot, the one that arguably has many residents scratching their heads is Question 4, regarding docks on the York River. Lawn signs for and against the measure have popped up in recent weeks, causing several people to ask on York Community Dialogue and other online forums: What is this all about?

The current Harbor Ordinance permits docks or wharfs east of Sewall’s Bridge only where the low water channel is 84 feet or less from the high water mark. In the less populated area west of Sewall’s Bridge, that number is a more restrictive 50 feet. While the ordinance does not directly speak to the length of the dock itself, the low-to-high water mark language has the effect of limiting length.

Question 4 on the special general referendum is a citizen’s petition that would remove that language from the ordinance. Unlike other measures on the ballot such as the nonbinding Davis land question or the polystyrene foam proposal, which has no organized opposition, there are two decidedly different and organized camps around Question 4.

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On the one hand is the author of the question, Paul Radochia, who lives not far from the George Marshall Store Gallery on one side and Steedman Woods on the other, on Mill Dam Road. He has the vocal support of other riverfront property owners and property rights advocates. On the other, members of the Harbor Board have been strong opponents of the measure, and have the support of the Friends of the York River and York River Study Committee members.

Radochia said he took the citizen’s petition route after appearing before the Harbor Board several times over several years, with the goal of modifying the ordinance. Although he and board Chairman David Webber disagree on how long his dock would be, it would in any event be longer than allowed under the ordinance.

Radochia said he and several other property owners conducted a study. It concluded that in the more populated area east of Sewall’s Bridge where he lives, the average dock length is 143 feet, he said, well in excess of the current ordinance strictures. After presenting this study in March 2018, the Harbor Board told him they’d like to conduct a study first, he said. When no study was forthcoming by last September, he decided to submit a citizen’s petition.

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“To me, it feels like if you’re family or friends, you’re treated one way by the board, and if you’re an outsider you’re treated another way,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I think this is a big reaction by a small number of people who feel slighted that a citizen’s petition was put forward to try to change something and take control away from them.”

But board members said the ordinance language is clear, and the board cannot make an exception to suit one particular property owner. “What’s the standard for giving in?” said Webber. “One year to give in? Two years to give in? The ordinance is the ordinance, the measurement is the measurement.”

“It would be like someone putting in a citizen’s petition to remove the three-acre minimum lot size in the western part of town, or to change the setback requirements for a building – and leaving nothing in its place,” said board member David Gittens.

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Harbor Board members say it may be that the 84-foot and 50-foot requirements could be modified. But before any change is made, they argue, a capacity study should be conducted to determine the outcome of more docks on the river. The York Police Department is working on a request for proposals for such a study, to be paid for through harbor usage fees.

Webber and Radochia emphatically part ways on the impact Question 4 could potentially have on the river.

Webber said there are 70 property owners on the York River who could build a dock if Question 4 passes. “The potential is there for that many,” said Webber. “We’re built out, we’re saturated with the ordinance as it currently stands,” said Gittens.

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The specter of that many additional docks is consequential, said Webber. Kayakers particularly tend to keep out of the channel and to the river’s edges, and it will be difficult for them to navigate around a plethora of additional docks. Moreover, Cindy Donnell of the Friends of the York River said, additional docks will undoubtedly mean additional boats, which will mean more pollution of the river.

Webber said the town’s comprehensive plan, which is intended to guide ordinance decisions, states “current standards which restrict the number of properties on which a dock can be constructed should be continued. The goal should be to strictly control the number of docks along the York River, particularly west of Sewall’s Bridge.”

But Radochia has a different take on all of these points. For one, he said, “there will be a subset of property owners who either don’t want a dock or can’t or won’t wish to afford the significant investment it will take to build a dock,” he said. Both he and Webber have indicated those costs would potentially be in the $30,000-plus range.

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More to the point, he said, any dock must meet requirements of the state Natural Resources Protection Act, and as such property owners must secure a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is governed by that law. A federal Army Corps of Engineers permit would also be required.

Both state and federal regulators want to ensure a dock does not interfere with the river’s navigational channel, which Radochia’s dock would not do. Beyond that, the NRPA has several requirements governing protection of natural resources. James Beyer of the DEP said the NRPA “does not have any hard and fast dock length requirements” but length may be a factor to meet all of the regulations in the law.

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Radochia argues these permits will further winnow the number of people who will put in docks, as they simply may not meet the criteria. He said rather than 70 docks as Webber suggests, the number will likely be more like 10 to 15. “And those will be in areas where there are already docks and they’re aesthetically consistent with those neighboring docks,” he said.

As for the comprehensive plan, Radochia said it is “not law, not enforceable as an ordinance or enforceable as anything. It is used by people and groups to try to convince people either to do or not to do a thing or things.”

Many of the yes on Question 4 signs mention an environmental impact. Radochia has been vocal about the fact he has to walk on the mud flats at low tide to put his dinghy or kayak in the water, which he said is damaging eel grass. Webber takes umbrage with that assessment, saying, “if he doesn’t want to walk on the mud flats, he shouldn’t walk on it.” Rather, he could have a dinghy at Town Dock 1 or other dock locations to get to his boat, Webber said.

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In another matter related to Question 4, Webber said he’s particularly irked that the Harbor Board’s 0-5 preference vote in opposition to the measure does not appear on the ballot, along with the selectmen’s 3-2 preference vote in favor of the measure. He said he was assured by Town Manager Steve Burns in January that their vote would be on the ballot, and he did not check later iterations of the ballot to make sure.

During public hearings, Radochia argued it would inappropriate to include the Harbor Board preference vote as a matter of fairness, as it would show bias toward the article. “That resonated with me,” said Burns, who subsequently removed the Harbor Board preference vote language from the article. He said at that point, he should have called Webber to let him know and did not. “It’s my mistake,” he said.

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Webber was and remains incensed, saying he feels the Harbor Board’s opinion was given short shrift on a key issue of importance to the management of the river. When he found out in March, he approached Selectmen Chairman Todd Frederick and asked for the preference vote to be reinstated. Frederick said a special meeting would need to be called. “I polled the members, and they didn’t see the need” to do that, Frederick said.