Homeowners of cottages along Popham Beach responded frantically this week after learning that federal and state regulators granted preliminary approval to remove about 150 wood pilings set deep in the sand at the northern end of the beach.

Opponents of removal plan say that the pilings are a key component of Popham’s history and that removing them could disturb critical fish habitats.

But Susan and Jack Parker of Woolwich — the latter of whom is the CEO of Reed & Reed Construction — have cleared nearly all the hurdles to remove the pilings of the pier used by the Eastern Steamship Company, a major early 20th century shipping firm.

Jack Parker said in his application, and at a public meeting last November, that he wants to remove the pilings because they are a navigation hazard and create “eddying,” which causes the ocean to “scour” a small inlet near the pilings.

But town committees, neighbors and others in Popham, which nestles beside a state park barrier beach at the tip of the Phippsburg peninsula, say the pilings may play a role in reducing the erosion Parker seeks to stop.

Parker did not return a phone call or email seeking comment this week.

OK with regulators

In November, the Parkers received a general permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the “deteriorated pilings from a dilapidated, abandoned dock.”

Last week, Phippsburg Town Administrator Amber Jones received a letter from Christine Woodruff, project manager for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection granting preliminary approval for the project. According to that draft order, the pilings are located below mean low water and are thus submerged land and owned by the state of Maine, which does not object to their removal.

Woodruff was out of the office this week, but Mark Bergeron of the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources said that only new evidence could change the department’s decision now.

Parker proposes to extract or break off, then remove the pilings with a “vibratory extractor” and clamshell bucket handled by a barge-mounted crane over the course of about a week. They’ll then be moved for sale or disposal, according to a report by Ransom Consulting.

According to the Ransom report, “the shoreline at the site is relatively stable compared to beaches to the south” and the removal of the pilings will likely cause the concave section of the beach to fill in and “accelerate the straightening of the beach.”

‘Never been a hazard’

Victoria and Rafael Villamil, whose house on Popham abuts the Parkers’ property, say their house is more affected by the pilings than the Parkers, and they aren’t interested in having the beach straightened.

They believe the pilings have likely prevented erosion in front of their house like that experienced on other parts of Popham.

Victoria Vilamill was born and grew up at Gilbert Head across from Popham Beach, and inherited her Popham home about 25 years ago, she said.

“When we sit in our living room, I do not look forward to seeing Mr. Parker’s boat or boats as part of my scenic view,” she said Tuesday from her year-round home in Philadelphia. “According to the NOAA charts, those pilings have never been a hazard to navigation in 120 years of existence. There’s been not one recorded accident. All this goes to show that the removal of these pilings is a ‘favor’ to Mr. Parker so he can more easily maneuver the anchoring of his boats in front of his property.”

The Vilamils aren’t the only residents furious about the pilings: More than two dozen signed a petition to save the pilings, and last fall the Phippsburg Harbor Commission and the Phippsburg Conservation Commission opposed the project.

In an undated letter to Woodruff, the Phippsburg Conservation Commission wrote of the pilings that marked an old coal loading wharf for the nearby forts, and served as a stop for steamers in the 19th century.

“The pilings will not be here forever and they may be eyesores for a few, but, while they are here, they remind us of how our predecessors lived, worked and recreated,” they wrote. “Let them fade away, gently. Many townspeople feel they are our history’s treasure.”

“The idea that anyone feels that they unilaterally have the right to petition the removal of an historical landmark is almost unbelievable,” Anne Dale, who grew up in Bath and spent summers at Popham, wrote to Woodruff.

Dale continued, “The bigger question here is that someone cannot simply decide for themselves that, after purchasing a property, they want their view changed or water flow altered by stepping over their property line into the ocean and waving a magic wand. The wand was not included in the deed and they did not purchase the pilings. Frankly, if they didn’t like the slim beach there or the view, they should not have bought the house. That’s our view, our heritage, our beach, our pilings, period.”

‘A more natural state’

While acknowledging that the pilings “evoke a sense of nostalgia,” and are part of the Popham “experience,” the DEP permit states that the pilings are not the primary draw to the area, and that removing them “will return the area to a more natural state.”

At a Nov. 12, 2016, meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Jack Parker said he wanted to remove the pilings “to protect the beach from erosion with rising sea levels,” according to meeting minutes. “He claimed he had no ulterior motive, as had been rumored, for building a dock or adding a mooring and offered to answer any questions.”

But as Victoria Villamil pointed out in an email to Woodruff — which she sent with a copy of the building permit — when Parker applied in 2012 to build his house, he was required to prove that a two-foot rise in the sea level would not damage the house.

“Much to our surprise, we see that they had successfully proven exactly that,” she wrote, adding later, “Their house is safe and they know it. Ours may not be, because of the uncertainty that accompanies the removing of the pilings.”

After an Oct. 7, 2016, site visit, the Army Corps of Engineers reported it found no signs to indicate why the pilings were historic and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission determined the pilings are not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places due to a loss of integrity.

Endangering fish?

Because the ACOE issued a “general permit,” the project falls under previously agreed upon minimal impacts with the federal, state and local resource agencies,” no additional review by the National Marine Fisheries Service is required to determine if the project’s impact on essential fish habitat or endangered species, according to Tim Dugan of the ACOE.

But Dugan said one condition of the permit is that work take place between Nov. 8 and April 9 in order to avoid impacts to endangered species.

According to the permit, the Maine Department of Marine Resources stated that “the project as proposed will have minimal impacts to marine resources or habitat and that no impact on traditional fishing or riparian access is expected.”

But state geologist Stephen Dixon wrote in the permit that he is “unable to conclude with certainty” that removing the pilings will not threaten the dunes or the homes on the dunes.”

With permits in hand, Parker appears ready to move the pilings this fall, which Victoria Villamil said is “causing an entire community real grief.”