Boothbay’s Board of Selectmen voted 4-1 on Wednesday to accept a proposed settlement with Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens that overturns a decision by the town’s Board of Appeals and allows the gardens to proceed unhindered with a $30 million expansion.
The settlement resolves a federal lawsuit filed in December by the botanical gardens against the town alleging the town had violated the gardens’ 14th Amendment right to due process.
But members of a group that opposed the expansion — including one family who filed suit against the town — say selectmen had made up their minds well before Wednesday’s meeting, and that the town did not publicize the proposed agreement beforehand.
“They didn’t want anyone to see it or know about it,” said Kevin Anthony, whose family’s property abuts the gardens. “They didn’t even post it … they wanted to do this just as quickly and quietly as possible without any push back from the public.”
Phone calls and emails to Boothbay Town Manager Dan Bryer throughout the week have not been returned.
Jodie and Vaughan Anthony and their sons, Jason and Kevin, appealed a development permit granted to the gardens by the Boothbay Planning Board in 2016 to build what would eventually include a new visitors center and gift shop, a restaurant in the existing visitors center, a 16,000-square-foot horticulture research and production facility, and a nearly six-story conservatory, along with expanded parking, formal gardens and trails.
In appealing that decision, the Anthonys and other opponents, including the Boothbay Region Water District, cited, among other concerns, further degradation of the water quality of nearby Knickerbocker Lake, already listed by the state as “most at risk from new development.”
Following that Board of Appeals decision, the town filed a stop-work order, but the botanical gardens continued work outside the Knickerbocker Lake watershed.
But the lawsuit objected that two members of the Board of Appeals had met with the Anthony family in private and visited their property and gardens, “ex parte proceedings that violated the gardens’ clearly established procedural due process rights.”
The settlement approved Wednesday evening allows Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens to complete all construction initially approved by the Boothbay Planning Department in December 2016 and April 2017.
It does call for the gardens to place “a significant piece” of property on the north side of Knickerbocker Lake into a conservation easement, but Kevin Anthony said much of that land was already part of an easement.
“I don’t think they lost on anything,” he said of the gardens. “They just got everything they wanted. They can build, pending building permits, in the watershed, which shouldn’t happen.”
According to court documents, if the town agreed to the settlement, the botanical gardens would dismiss a second lawsuit filed in Lincoln County Superior Court.
Anthony said his mother, Jodie Anthony, in her 80s, “doesn’t even go outdoors anymore. And that’s her thing — to be out working in her gardens, but [the CMBG developers] are working right next to her — it’s like having 400 people in your backyard.”
He said their legal battle had been “very expensive,” although he declined to be specific, and said his parents would like to move, but the property value of their home has declined.
Anthony said selectmen were faced with a potential lawsuit that could have cost the town a significant amount of money, and “it scared the heck out of them.” But he said that decision may prove to be short-sighted if the water quality of Knickerbocker Lake deteriorates.
“There’s a very proveable threat,” he said. “The [Department of Environmental Protection] made errors. If this goes south, [Boothbay Region Water District Manager] Jon Ziegra told us we can fix it, but it’s going to take $1 million to fix it. [Selectmen] are saving money now, but it might cost them in the future.”
Responding to an email seeking comment on Thursday, Bill Cullina, executive director of the botanical gardens, said he could not comment on the suit but said the gardens’ expansion is set for a “soft opening” when the gardens reopen for the year on April 15.
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