PHIPPSBURG, Maine — Change is a constant in Popham, a beach village where the Gulf of Maine kisses the mouth of the Kennebec River.
Each tide rearranges the barrier beach in small ways. Storms trigger more drastic transformations, sometimes rerouting the course of Morse River that meanders from the beach to the village.
It’s been that way since the first European settlers arrived here in 1608. But a new torrent of change is buffeting Popham, this time spawned by the confluence of aging local dynasties and skyrocketing coastal land prices. Many with community ties that stretch back more than a century fear this swell of change will transform Popham in ways that threaten to sever those deep ties.
‘It was our area and nobody bugged us’
Four generations ago, John Marsh’s great-grandparents took a steamship up the Maine coast for their honeymoon, visiting a string of grand hotels before arriving at the Rock Ledge Hotel on Popham Beach.
Charmed by the expansive beach between the Kennebec and Morse rivers, the couple soon bought a cottage not far from the hotel. Their five children each followed suit.
More than half-a-dozen family members, including Marsh, a longtime senior vice president at Bath Savings Institution, still share ownership of that first cottage, and visit as much as they can, Marsh said recently.
Brian Hatch was just a boy when his father, who owned Bath Printers, first rented a summer cottage at Popham. Hatch remembers Etta Taylor scooping ice cream cones at Percy’s General Store during the day, and parents wandering to various cocktail parties in the neighborhood known as “The Grove” at night.
“There were 12 to 14 of us in the same age group,” Hatch said recently. “We’d say to Mom and Dad, ‘We’ll see ya,’ and we’d head for the beach for touch football, or walk to Morse’s River. It was our own area and nobody bugged us.”
The year Hatch graduated from college, his dad bought a cottage in The Grove, about 350 yards from the beach. Hatch still owns the small cottage, and spends time there each summer, along with many of the same “kids” he grew up with.
More than 400 years after settlers first colonized the area, Popham Beach remains a treasured “gem,” still somewhat undiscovered, except to those who wind their way from Bath to the end of Route 209.
“When you get up to where we are, it’s like we’re locked in time,” Hatch said.
But much has changed over the years — various hurricanes washed houses away, and the beach has eroded and reshaped itself. The old Coast Guard station was purchased and renovated into a million dollar estate, and a number of cottages have become large, luxury homes.
This summer, with “For Sale” signs posted at the former Ocean View Campground and Cottages — now on the market as condominiums — as well as Percy’s Store and Spinneys Restaurant and Guest House, some fear even more dramatic changes are imminent.
As the town pursues an appeal of a controversial permit that allows Reed & Reed Construction president Jack Parker — owner of one of the larger renovated homes — to remove historic pilings from the beach, some residents, both year-round and summer people, worry the old wooden cottages will be sold off, one by one, to people “from away,” and the magic of the secluded Popham colony will disappear forever.
“Everybody sees all the ‘for sale’ signs,” said Jane Dennis, who with her husband, Timothy, own Stonehouse Manor Bed and Breakfast on Silver Lake, not far from the beach. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out. What is going to stop someone from coming in and changing the feel of it. People around here know. It’s happened before.”
Expensive means exclusive
In 2006, then-Maine state treasurer and now U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin tore down cottages on his family’s beachfront property and built what was to be the Popham Beach Club, a private club for use by those who bought homes in his development on the farther down Route 209.
When Poliquin wanted to open the club to public membership, abutters on both sides sued, eventually taking the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Eventually, the club failed and the original 5,000 square-foot house was sold in July 2015 to Harris Golf president Jeffrey Harris for $858,000. It’s currently listed for sale at $2.7 million.
Further down the beach, in 2009 international developer Pritham Singh, whose projects have included strip malls in Freeport, bought the former Coast Guard station which operated from 1915 to 1971 and sits prominently along the beach. Singh developed the station, and several adjacent homes he purchased over the next few years (“he offered to buy everything,” Dennis said). Now all are surrounded by tall white fences.
A year ago, Bernadette Konzelman, who with her late husband, Charles Konzelman, operated the Ocean View Campground and Cottages for 40 years, closed the campground and sold the property, with 425 feet of beachfront, for $3.45 million to Driftwood Partners of Harvard, Massachusetts, according to tax records.
The property is now on the market as “The Driftwood,” with the five-bedroom main house listed for $1 million and each of the dozen 600-square-foot cottages, built in the 1940s, now renovated and listed as “condominiums” for between $295,000 and $395,000.
The next wave
Until this summer, changes largely affected only tourists who stayed at the campground or beach club. But when summer residents and others arrived in June this year, the “For Sale By Owner” sign that hung at Spinneys for years had been replaced by a Keller Williams Realty sign, and Percy’s General Store, right next door along the beach, was also on the market.
The sale of those properties jeopardizes access to overflow parking for the state park beach and public paths to the sand.
Diane and Glenn Theall have operated Spinneys — altogether assessed at $1.7 million, according to tax records — for 19 years after buying it from Jack and Fay Hart, who also ran it for nearly two decades. The property is currently listed at $2.8 million.
“We’re in our 60s,” Diane Theall said recently, when asked why the couple are selling. “We’re working our asses off.”
She said not much has changed at the restaurant and inn over the years: Seafood is popular all the time, and Glenn still makes his own hamburger and stews.
“We hope someone will come in and continue what we’re doing,” she said.
When Percy’s General Store went on the market for $1.25 million, people began noticing that quite a few properties were for sale: A beachfront cottage between Percy’s and the $1.15 million, five-bedroom house built by Parker is listed at $999,000. A four-bedroom home adjacent to Percy’s is on the market for $480,000.
Tracy and David Percy bought the property from Ellison Taylor in 2004 for $225,000, according to tax records. Today it’s assessed at $1.07 million, which includes a path to the beach and empty lots used each summer for parking at $10 per car.
Neither David nor Tracy Percy would speak to a reporter in late September, but wrote on the store’s Facebook page, “Our parents are aging and our grandchildren are growing. We have always been about ‘family first’ and now our parents need our help.”
Locals say the Popham economy — in particular, Percy’s — took a hit when the Ponderosa campground closed in the 1980s and then Ocean View closed more recently.
“From one perspective, it’s nice, because it’s really reduced the number of people on the beach, but [campers] contributed quite a bit to the local economy,” Marsh said recently. “I went into Spinneys for breakfast not too long ago, in August, and we were one of only two tables. They need more commerce to survive.”
Locals will adjust to Percy’s closing, Hatch said, but what, if anything, is built on their lot is another story.
“They’re marketing to homeowners,” he said. “Someone could come in and build their own McMansion.”
“They’re not selling Percy’s and Spinneys at a price that someone is going to just come in and have a little cottage,” Dennis said.
Various groups have spawned over the years to protect parts of Popham — the Popham Beach Improvement Society, an I Love Popham Facebook group, and a group that worked to purchase the Popham Chapel and Chapel House and the library.
But Dennis said residents who wait until their own property is directly affected by development will have waited too long.
“What’s needed here is something that is going to take care of the whole of Popham,” she said. “If we can pull in a lot of support from a lot of different avenues … maybe a moratorium on development … but everybody’s afraid to step on the wrong toes.”
Several years ago, for instance, homeowners from the former Coast Guard station to the state park border received permits to place large pieces of granite in front of their homes to ward off erosion — which is fine, Dennis said, until you try to walk the beach at high tide.
“You used to be able to get on at Spinneys and walk all the way to the Morse River,” she said. “Now you can’t get past the rocks.”
She doesn’t hold out much hope for the town to curb development at Popham.
Pointing to the Singh and Parker properties, she said of town officials, “They could care less what happens down here as long as the tax money comes in. Things fly here that wouldn’t fly other places.”
Marsh said the small, narrow peninsula won’t support much more development.
“Somebody could try to do something big and fancy, and create density, but in my mind the infrastructure … we have so little opportunity for sewage disposal on a large scale, and water,” he said. “The question is, how much density can a fragile little peninsula support?”
Whether the Popham area could support more potable water and sewage systems “is largely unknown,” Phippsburg Codes Enforcement Officer Lee Rainey said. Most people use “points,” or large screens to filter potable water through the sand, he said, although some find the water gets brackish at peak use.
“Back when they came for a few weeks each summer and left, it wasn’t a problem,” Rainey said. “Now they’re [here] from the second they can be until the second they can’t.”
New technology for leach fields has allowed sophisticated systems that would be less of an issue, he said.
“Everything is in-ground septic systems,” he said. “As far as I know, we’ve never had a problem with anything cross-contaminating.”
“We’re talking about an area that is a coastal sand dune,” Rainey said, so any new development would have to be reviewed by state and local officials. The Spinneys property is grandfathered for multiple uses on the same lot, but the Percy’s property would only be allowed one use — commercial or residential.
“Who is looking out for the future?” Dennis said. “This is a gem here. Look at Scarborough and Pine Point. We have that here without the houses on the dunes. We should be learning from what happened [there], and we’re not.”
“I don’t think people will allow it, if it can be helped,” Diane Theall said of further development.
“The change has already started,” Dennis said. “It will get worse when Spinneys and Percy’s sell.”
But Marsh, who has seen Popham change so much over so many decades, is more pragmatic.
“Eventually, we can only fight it for so long,” he said. “This is one of the few very special places along the Maine coast. Once it’s discovered by the moneyed people …”