Old pilings in Maine divide a town. Are they a treasure or a nuisance?
POPHAM BEACH, Maine — A ragged cluster of rotting pilings juts from the water here, the cracked, crooked remnants of a wharf where 19th-century steamships from Boston and elsewhere brought throngs of summer visitors to seaside hotels.
The wood pilings aren’t pretty, but they are treasured by families who have lived and summered here for generations, a stark yet familiar presence that recalls the beach’s storied past.
Soon they could be gone, removed by a relative newcomer who has received permission to pull up this weathered piece of history from the state waters in front of his property.
“It would be so horrible,” said Victoria Villamil, whose cottage faces the 150-odd pilings. “I don’t get it. Nobody gets it.”
The dispute — a classic example of how one person’s nuisance can be another’s treasure — has ratcheted up emotions in a speck of a village that is better known for quiet days, pot-luck suppers, and spotty cellphone service.
“Times are different now,” said Mary McNamara, whose family has owned property here since the 1930s. “This was a big surprise to everybody.”
Maybe it shouldn’t have been: Popham Beach, one town official said, is believed to be Maine’s per-capita leader in property litigation. The picky details of boundary lines, which often were overlooked among longtime neighbors, are disputed more and more as newer generations acquire deeds, some residents said.
Still, when well-to-do contractor Jackson Parker received state approval in June to remove the pilings, arguing that they cause erosion, a summer simmer turned to a boil.
The town of Phippsburg, which includes Popham Beach, has appealed to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to reconsider. In the appeal, the Board of Selectmen expressed concerns about “significant environmental damage to nearby marine life and maritime activities” if the pilings were removed, the possible release of cancer-causing creosote into the water, and the loss of an “iconic, emotionally stirring symbol” of the community, which boasts a 2-mile stretch of sandy beach as its prize attraction.
The pilings harken back to the days when Popham Beach, a 50-mile drive north of Portland, served as a Gilded Age getaway, nearly three centuries after George Popham established a short-lived English colony here in 1607. The steamship wharf became a focal point of the community, a place where locals mixed with wealthy visitors to swap stories and watch the hubbub.
Selectmen contend that Parker has no legal standing to remove the wharf pilings, which sit in state property below the low-water mark at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Residents who oppose the idea said they are bewildered that their concerns do not seem to carry much weight.
“Isn’t it just as legitimate if the person on the other side said, ‘I want it to stay.’ Does he own it any more than any of the other close-in neighbors?” asked Dot Kelly, vice chairwoman of the town’s Conservation Commission.
Rafael Villamil, a Philadelphia architect and Victoria Villamil’s husband, said he has been frustrated by his dealings with the Parkers and the state.
“I felt that this was a done deal,” Villamil said. “They figured nobody would make a fuss about it.”
The state, in its decision, declared that the pilings had been abandoned and that it had no objection to their removal. While villagers wait for the appeal to play out, Parker remains adamant that the pilings should go.
“As ocean levels rise due to climate change, the section of beach behind the pilings will be particularly vulnerable to storm damage,” said Parker, president of Reed & Reed, one of the largest construction contractors in northern New England. “Once the pilings are removed, the beach will have the chance to renourish itself and return to its natural state.”
Many villagers dismissed that rationale as just so much fog rolling up the river. They noted that a study commissioned by Parker in 2012, required by the state before he could build near the beach, concluded that his new home will not be severely damaged if sea levels rise by 2 feet over the next 100 years.
“When the same man comes back and says. ‘Panic, panic, I now have to get rid of the pilings because my cottage is threatened’ — wait a minute, buddy,” McNamara said.
Photos taken over the course of a century do not show significant change to the beach behind the pilings, McNamara and others said. The Maine Geological Survey, a state agency, reported in January that its scientists cannot conclude with any certainty whether the pilings promote or prevent erosion.
“There’s no reason to get rid of them,” said Ethan DeBery, a fishing boat captain and chairman of the town’s harbor commission. “It’s kind of taking a big risk for everybody.”
Parker insisted it’s his property that’s at risk.
“Unlike those folks who see no downside to keeping the old piling, we have a choice to make: protect the piling or protect the beach,” he said.
Opponents also wonder whether Parker has another motivation. One rumor is that Parker wants to moor a boat or build a dock off his two-acre property, where he built a large home after tearing down a Dutch Colonial.
Parker scoffed at the notion.
“I have a mooring around the corner,” he said. “And the notion of wanting to build a dock and spend the summer chasing people off of it is just plain crazy.”
The Army Corps of Engineers also has signed off on the project. The state and federal permits are good for four years and allow Parker to remove the pilings between Nov. 8 and April 1 in any of those years. Parker said the timing of the work “will depend on availability of the necessary marine equipment.”
The clock is ticking, but many residents are holding out hope that the state will reconsider or that Parker will change his mind.
“We’ve got to keep community relations the way they have been at Popham,” said Ellen Louise Hart, whose family has come to Popham Beach for four generations. “I hope that Jack Parker will see this is a much bigger issue than he thought of.”
The Conservation Commission, in a letter to the state, expressed another hope for the Popham pilings.
“While they are here, they remind us of how our predecessors lived, worked, and recreated,” the board wrote. “Let them fade away, gently.”