PHIPPSBURG — A plan to remove a set of pilings that once formed the foundation of a pier along Popham Beach has raised considerable objections from both neighbors and Phippsburg residents.

Jack Parker, owner of property adjacent to the pilings at 30 Sea Street and CEO of Reed & Reed Construction, intends to remove the pilings, a plan recently approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, following an earlier approval by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Parker said his primary motivation for removing them is to prevent future erosion issues, based on a report Ransom Consulting Engineers produced at his expense. The report states that the pilings lead to reduced accretion of sand on the adjacent beach, and that removal would likely lead to an additional 100 feet of sand in the region where they currently sit.

“I’ve been coming to what is now our property for 50 years,” said Parker. “I realize the beach shifts and changes over time. But when I saw waves lapping at an old timber seawall in the frontal dune last summer, it was clear to me that conditions had worsened.”

Parker asserts that projected sea level rise will put his property at risk, and that he wants to remove the pilings solely to add 100 feet of sand to increase protection of his property. “To be clear, I have no plans or interest in building a dock on the beach whatsoever,” he said.

“I like the looks of the piling as much as anyone, but for me there’s a trade off: Remove the pilings, allow the beach to replenish itself and reduce the chances of major storm damage due to rising sea levels, or just wait for the inevitable damage to the frontal dunes,” he said. “It’s simple: Protect the pilings or protect the beach.”

The pilings, which are over 100 years old, were originally the foundation of a large pier once used by the Boston Steamship Company during the beach’s heyday as a tourist destination at the turn of the 20th century.

This aerial photo shows regional scouring on the beach, which Jack Parker and the Ransom Engineering report he commissioned believe is caused by the pilings. Photo courtesy of Jack Parker

News of the potential removal first came to light in November, when a number of residents attended a select board meeting to denounce the plan due to the pilings’ historic nature. At the start of July, Maine DEP granted Parker a permit for the removal of the pilings, re-igniting the controversy. Residents and visitors immediately took to social media to express distaste with the removal, going so far as to organize a meeting to discuss concerns and organize a resistance to the plan.

For opponents, removal of the pilings is about more than erosion; it would destroy a local historic landmark. Judy Mullins, a member of Phippsburg Historical Society’s Board of Directors, said the pilings are a remnant of a bygone era of Popham’s history, when tourists or residents would visit by steamship as the primary form of transportation to and from the area.

“It brings you back in memories of things that you heard, a grandparent telling a grandchild, or a great grandfather telling how things were done,” said Mullins. “You remove them and you remove history of what transpired in this community.”

This photo from sometime in the 1890s shows the pier as it once was. Courtesy Photo

Some summer residents have been shocked by the news, she said. One resident she spoke to was “near tears” at the information.

Over 20 residents from the area attended a community meeting on July 14, initiated by Jim Hatch to discuss the removal and what could be done. Parker also attended, to give his side of the story and to also condemn some of the negative actions and comments from people on social media, particularly on the “I Love Popham Beach” Facebook page.

“Some are shockingly insulting, to be honest to you,” he said to those attending, adding protesters have placed signs along the road near his house. He’s received threats of vandalism or harm to his family over the issue, he said.

Those in attendance were shocked that the situation had led to threats of harm. “I’m embarrassed that people have threatened you,” said Hatch.

Parker added that the negativity around the plan has been such that he is willing to hold off on removal for a few years to give the community time to “catch its breath.” In addition, he’s willing to monitor erosion over that time, and if evidence can be provided that shows the pilings aren’t causing harm, he could reconsider their removal.

Over 20 members of the Popham community met to discuss how to save the pilings. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Rafael Villamil, whose property directly abuts Parker’s and also faces the pilings, has owned his property for 25 years and lived in the area for over 70. His wife was born across the river on Gilbert’s Head. He said he fears removal of the pilings will put his house, and the surrounding houses, in danger.

“Our part of the beach, our house and the two houses next to us, have never had major storm damage,” he said. “The pilings, I feel, are part of that protection. Not the whole thing, but they are part of that protection.”

Villamil cites the multiple times homes farther south of the pilings have been severely damaged in storms, often causing thousands of dollars in damage. Articles as early as the 1950s show photos of water lapping at the doors of cottages to the south, many of which have been moved farther inland.

Despite the close proximity of those homes, Villamil’s cottage hasn’t been affected by any flooding in over 70 years, and has never been moved, he said.

He also objected to other parts of the Ransom Engineering report, and the application Parker made to the Maine DEP. Particularly, the assertion in the application that the pilings are “navigational hazards.”

“There has not been one recorded accident between a vessel and the pilings,” said Villamil. He cited National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts that use the pilings as a navigational aid, not a hazard. “The suggestion that the pilings are a hazard to navigation is absurd.”

Villamil pointed out that the Ransom Engineering Report said the area of beach behind the pilings is “relatively stable.”

A memo written by Dr. Stephen M. Dickson of the Maine Geological Survey about the region of beach said that he could not predict the outcome of removing the pilings. “With our current state of the science, we are not able to predict that removing the pilings will have no adverse impact on the dunes, beach, or nearby buildings,” wrote Dickson.

According to a recently released MGS report, “State of Maine’s Beaches in 2017,” the area of beach stretching from Fort Popham south to Wood Island has been “very highly accretive,” with an average change of an additional 6.4 feet of sand per year, with some areas reaching 10 to 15 or more feet of additional sand a year, “some of the highest in the state.”

However, that same report also pointed out the area from the former Coast Guard Station – where the pilings are located – north to Fort Popham saw the least change, with some pockets of erosion occurring.

The MGS report was taken into account during the permitting process by the Maine DEP, according to Mark Bergeron, director of the Bureau of Land Resources.

“They had to meet the standards of the law that’s called the Natural Resources Protection Act. We have to take a look at all of those and make a finding based on the information the applicant offered to us,” said Bergeron.

The findings, he said, are based on information provided by the applicant and any public comment, and on a specific set of standards. If the standards are met, Maine DEP is required by law to issue a permit, as they don’t have the legislative authority to refuse.

Parker has also gained necessary permissions to remove the pilings from the Submerged Lands Program with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. The bureau, according to Bergeron, considers the pilings to be abandoned, and had no objection to their removal.

Emeritus Professor of Law Orlando Delogu, an expert on legal issues in shoreland zones with the University of Maine School of Law, said based on current information Parker has covered the legal requirements.

“Whether you regard it as appropriate or inappropriate — if he’s touched all those bases, he may have put himself in a position where he can go forward,” said Delogu. “The time to speak out was when his applications were pending with these state and federal agencies.”

Parker said he understands the concerns and strong feelings about the pilings, but the risks they pose are too great to be ignored. While erosion won’t cause harm in the near future, he said the fear is future storms would pose significant risk, based on the information from the Ransom Engineering Report.

“We think the risk is over a longer time frame and we are convinced the solution is removing the cause of significant, localized scour and erosion,” said Parker. “The permits are good for four years. We are willing to defer the removals and monitor erosion in the area behind the pilings for two or three years. During that time perhaps people will come to realize how significant the erosion problem is and recognize the obvious cause.”

Currently, said Delogu, the only recourse residents may have is to hire legal council and file an appeal with the Maine DEP.

According to Bergeron, residents have 30 days from the issuance of the permit to file for an appeal, either through the Maine DEP or the Superior Court.