When Maine Preservation on Wednesday released its annual list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in the state, Boothbay Harbor’s working waterfront, the site of ongoing conflict over commercial development in recent years, was included.
The historic preservation group’s designation adds to the latest controversy, a polarizing rezoning proposal that would allow hotels, recreational marinas and housing in what for 30 years has been a Maritime Zone on the east side of the harbor.
The district is the site of three of the four wholesale and lobstering businesses in town, but the rezoning proposal would turn more than three-quarters of the district into a Limited Commercial District.
Only 20 miles of mainland and island shoreline remain as working waterfront in Maine. That’s a miniscule fraction of a 3,500-mile shoreline that grows to 5,300 miles when you include the islands, according to Maine Preservation. That 20 miles must support the commercial fishing industry, which brought in $636 million in 2016 and supported 35,000 jobs, according to Maine Preservation.
Maine Preservation advocates for towns such as Boothbay Harbor to work for public acquisition of working waterfront, as was done in Bar Harbor and St. George, to maintain or enhance protections of the state’s shoreline zoning laws.
The loss of working waterfront is a larger problem statewide, though Boothbay Harbor’s development pressure is an example of what other towns are experiencing, according to Sarah Hansen, real estate manager for Maine Preservation.
“We’re concerned about policy changes that will enable specific kinds of development to happen that are really not looking at the interests of the maritime industry,” she said.
Boothbay Harbor and neighboring Boothbay have experienced dramatic development in recent years, led largely by liquor baron Paul Coulombe, who built a multimillion-dollar mansion on nearby Pratt’s Island.
During the past six years, Coulombe has purchased more than 50 properties in the Boothbay area, including transforming the former Rocktide Restaurant and Inn into the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Country Club that dominates the east side of the harbor.
In July, he told the Bangor Daily News he had purchased The Lobster Dock, also an adjacent property, and expected to close on Cap’N Fish’s in November.
But in August, one or two people from each of the working piers, along with Deanne Tibbetts, gathered at Boothbay Railway Village to figure out how they might save the Sea Pier, from where about 30 of the town’s 110 or so lobstermen fish.
Tibbetts, whose husband lobsters out of Robinson Wharf in Southport, was born Deanne Brewer, part of a fishing family from Southport for six or seven generations, she said.
The group’s first thought was a co-op, Tibbetts said Wednesday. But then they learned about Holbrooks Community Foundation in Harpswell, which preserved the Holbrooks wharf, store and restaurants as working waterfront in 2005.
Tibbetts, who is now chairwoman of the Boothbay Region Maritime Foundation, said they met with Sea Pier owner Douglas Carter, who gave them a set price and a “very short timeframe,” and they then signed a purchase-and-sale agreement.
Tibbetts said the sale includes a restrictive covenant that limits the use of the property to “working waterfront,” and that the property will be maintained as a commercial lobster buying business.
The funding is anonymous, she said, and she declined to give the sale price, which is not yet public. However, in July, Boothbay Harbor residents Susan and George Craig offered to donate the first $1 million to purchase the Cap’n Fish’s property, saying the remaining $2 million sale price could be covered with fundraising.
Coulombe also proposed rezoning the east side of the harbor, promoting the project as Boothbay Harbor East Side (“It’s time to invest in the future … revitalize the East Side!”).
But late last month, he pulled his proposal to purchase Cap’n Fish motel and restaurant, just up the road from the Sea Pier, after the town’s Board of Selectmen opted to hire an independent planner to weigh in on the proposed rezoning.
According to a release published Oct. 25 in the Boothbay Register, Coulombe had already invested $500,000 in nonrefundable deposits, and had planned to invest $30 million in a “new hotel, restaurant and world-class conference center” on the site, and said it would have created hundreds of jobs and added more than $250,000 annually to the town’s tax revenue.
Through his assistant, Michelle Amero, Coulombe did not return a phone message left Wednesday.
Boothbay Harbor Town Manager Tom Woodlin and Codes Enforcement Manager Geoff Smith did not return phone calls and emails sent Wednesday and Thursday.
Opponents of the rezoning plan argue that it is inconsistent with the town’s 2015 comprehensive plan, and say Boothbay Harbor is losing the fishing heritage that draws people to the area.
Tibbetts said she was concerned that should the rezoning take effect, “the property could be turned into a private marina or yacht club … I believe there was interest on the part of the developer to purchase three properties. We realized this town seemed to be moving in the direction of a recreational utopia for seasonal visitors, this mecca … of five-star hotels, five-star restaurants and boutique shops … it didn’t seem to mesh for me.”
“The fishing heritage is very important to me,” Tibbetts said. “It’s not just the working waterfront. It really, really is heritage. It’s about keeping your sense of community. That’s what I see as the greatest threat here. It isn’t so much losing a piece of land where people can get to the waterfront. It’s a whole culture that [would] be impacted by losing that waterfront.”
The group worried that Boothbay Harbor could turn into another generic tourist town “with no sense of history and no sense of where we came from,” she said. “I think people come to Boothbay Harbor because of our heritage and the culture you experience.”
First up after the sale closes, the foundation plans to rebuild the pier, which initial estimates indicate would cost $1 million to $2 million, she said. Then they’ll look for a new tenant to run the buying station.
Then, she hopes the foundation will be able to preserve more properties on the harbor.
Of the controversy raging over development in town, Tibbetts said the conversation should be about fishing families rather than building five-star hotels.
“Another developer said they were waiting with bated breath to see what would happen with the other ordinances,” Tibbetts said. “We knew it wasn’t just one person, and it wasn’t just this summer, and wasn’t just this property. This was the change for the future that worried me.”
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