AUGUSTA — A Board of Environmental Protection decision this morning has paved the way for the removal of a set of pilings in Phippsburg’s Popham village that have been in place for over 100 years.

The 6 – 1 decision denied the appeal made by the town of Phippsburg and abutters Rafeal Villamil and Ethan DeBery. The appeal was trying to force another look at a Maine Department of Environmental Protection permit granted to Jack Parker – President and CEO of Reed & Reed Construction – for the removal of the pilings.

Parker, who owns a house adjacent to the pilings, applied for permitting to remove them after an engineering report he commissioned indicated they are the likely cause of localized erosion.

The town, and many residents, objected to the removal of the pilings due to their historic, cultural, and aesthetic appearance. The pilings are a remnant of a Boston Steamship Company pier which once served tourists visiting the Popham region in the early 20th century.

“They represent a lot of the culture of the area to a lot of people,” said Jessica Maher, representing the town of Phippsburg. “The public felt that the department should give that more consideration.”

In addition, Villamil said the science on whether the pilings hurt or help the properties nearby wasn’t conclusive enough to merit their removal. The town, and Maher, pointed out possibly conflicting information in the report Parker used for his decision to remove the pilings. Key references were made to the Ransom Engineering report Parker commissioned that indicated a concave beach decreases wave energy, while removing the pilings would result in a straighter beach. The appellants added a Maine Geological Survey determination that the complex and ever-changing nature of the Popham Beach area made any firm predictions of what would happen with the removal of the pilings difficult.

“The town is contending that the reliance on the parts of the reports that the applicant has submitted are misplaced,” said Maher.

Appellants of the Maine Department of Environmental decision to grant permitting for the removal of the Popham Pilings make their case at Thursday’s meeting. Staff photo by Chris Chase

The board, however, sided heavily with the DEP’s original findings, and the Parkers. Throughout deliberation, none of the members questioned the decision that the DEP came to based on the evidence presented to them. Their only concern was whether the Parker’s had permission to remove the pilings based on land access rights.

The land the pilings are situated on is technically state property, as they sit in the water below the mean low-water mark. The management of such land falls under the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which Parker contacted to determine if he could remove the pilings.

The bureau essentially said that the pilings were considered abandoned property, and that Parker did not need a permit. The board’s chair, James Parker (who is in no way related to Jack Parker) didn’t believe that not needing a permit was enough to constitute permission.

“It appears to me that the Bureau of Conservation dropped the ball on the Parkers,” said James. “They didn’t give anybody permission to remove it, but the state said ‘we don’t care.’”

Board Member Kathleen Chase also had hang-ups about the permission aspect of the pilings removal, but eventually decided that the multiple instances where the bureau clarified they were uncaring about the pilings was enough.

“I think they met all the criteria, this is just my opinion,” said Chase.

In the end, the board voted in favor of denying the appeal, which paves the way for Parker to remove the pilings. The nature of the permitting means the pilings can only be removed during the winter months.

DeBery said that he feels the decision could set a strange precedent in Maine, which allows anyone at all to remove something in a waterway as long as they go through the permitting process. The DEP itself stated during the meeting that someone living three miles upriver would technically have the same right to a permit to remove the pilings.

“It could pave the way for anybody who doesn’t like something to pull it out,” said DeBery. “It sets a dangerous precedent for the whole state.”

Others present felt the removal of the pilings could constitute an environmental hazard in an important region for fishing and aquaculture in the state. Former state representative Leila Percy, who served on the Marine Resources Committee for three terms, said the materials the pilings could have been treated with could be of concern.

“How many pilings do we not see, and how will the removals of those pilings affect the environment?” she said.

For the town, and residents fighting the removal, the decision was a heavy blow. While the town and the abutters could file an appeal in Superior Court, many felt the cost would likely be too steep.

“The town won’t be able to afford to fight this any further,” said Barbara Keltonic, who helped write the appeal.

Other expressed anger that one person was deciding the fate of objects that many in the town have enjoyed for decades.

“It was less about the pilings and more about ‘did the department meet its own requirements,'” said Connie Shiebler.

Mark Bergeron, of the DEP, said that the department’s decision was exactly that: Based on the strict standards they adhere to in every instance of permitting.

“Our job is not to advocate one way or the other,” said Bergeron. “If all the standards have been met, then we have to, by law, issue a permit.” The board’s decision affirms that Parker met every requirement for permitting.

Parker said he will likely not remove the pilings this winter.

“It’s highly unlikely we’re going to remove them in the winter of 2017 – 2018,” said Parker. On into the future, he said they’ll have to “Wait and see” on timelines for their removal. The permits Parker has been granted will remain valid for the next four years.