Jennifer Hunter, coordinator of the York River Study Committee, stands at Scotland Bridge in York in this Seacoast Online file photo. Credit: Deb Cram | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Property rights advocates voiced strong support Monday night for a proposed change to the harbor ordinance that would remove language imposing local restrictions on dock lengths. But Harbor Board members and others cautioned the proposal could substantially increase the number of docks and said the situation needs to be studied before changes are made.

Both views were heard at a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen regarding a citizen’s petition put forth by Mill Dam Road resident Paul Radochia. Selectmen, while providing a forum for all sides, have no choice but to put the matter on the May ballot. Under the town charter, any citizen petition that is in proper format must go through to a townwide vote.

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The petition, if it becomes law, has the potential to free up the river to dock or pier structures, as long as state law is followed. It would remove language that allows docks east of Sewall’s Bridge only in areas where the low tide to high tide ratio is 84 feet. West of the bridge, that number is 50 feet. It also states no pier or float can extend into the channel a distance “greater than the lesser of 20 feet or 10 percent of the width of the channel at low tide.”

Radochia’s home is east of Sewall’s Bridge. As proposed, he said, the dock he wants to construct would be 135 feet, including the float. He said right now he and his family have to walk through “delicate marsh and eel grasses” along mud flats that are home to shellfish to bring their kayaks or dinghies to the river.

The 84-foot restriction is “an unfair and arbitrary measurement. There’s an issue of inequality here with tourists, transient boats and non-riverfront property owners seeming to have more rights than riverfront property owners, who pay the highest taxes in town.” He said he tried to work with the Harbor Board on alternatives, but chose the petition route when he and the board failed to reach agreement.

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“If approved, this gives property owners reasonable rules governing their ability to build a dock, providing safe and environmentally friendly access to the river,” he said.

Jennifer Hunter, coordinator of the York River Study Committee, said the committee supports studying the possible impacts of adding more docks before amending the ordinance. She said when the river is incorporated into the national Wild and Scenic Partnership River program, federal funds could be allocated to conduct a comprehensive river use analysis — including the impact of more docks.

The call for such a study was emphasized by Harbor Board Chairman David Webber. He said the board “is not opposed to making changes to the dock ordinance, but we are opposed to this particular change because it is broad and removes all restrictions.” He said there are only 60 docks in the river now, and by removing restrictions there is the potential for “possibly doubling the docks.”

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“Maybe we do need to change,” said resident Cindy Donnell, a member of the study committee. “But we need to have the opportunity to do the study and figure the impact on the river before we make this wide, sweeping change and can’t reverse what we did.”

Supporters of the petition said the existing restrictions are punitive and the time to make changes is now. Southside Road resident Pat Rocheleau said he commissioned several studies when he worked to build a dock on his riverfront property seven years ago, an effort that was ultimately successful.

“So there are studies that have already been done. Anything we can do to simplify the dock ordinance would be appreciated. Though it isn’t a guaranteed right to have a dock, you should have reasonable access to the water,” he said.

Resident Kevin McKinney said he supports the petition “enthusiastically. This is all about property rights and as long as it is not a hazard to navigation,” docks should be allowed. “Now we have a man who pays a lot of taxes and wants a dock. It’s not a hazard to navigation. Let’s figure it out. Right now the existing ordinance is too restrictive.”