Jim Stevenson, one of the residents of Birch Lane, lives in the house at the left -- just across a gully from the tent recently erected by Chris Colby. The tent is used for church services, and it's one of the concerns that Birch Lane residents have with Colby and his family. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — A simmering dispute between landowners came to a boil this week when members of a neighborhood association sent a cease-and-desist letter to a couple they accuse of constructing an illegal road and hosting large church gatherings on their property, among other complaints.

Residents of a subdivision on Birch Lane vented Tuesday to Searsport selectmen about Chris and Diane-Marie Colby, who are building the road. They’re also hosting a religious summer camp and twice weekly services for Calvary Chapel Belfast on their property, which abuts the Birch Lane subdivision. 

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” said Judson Colby, who refuted the complaints against his parents. “We’re not smoking meth. We’re having a church service, people. It’s our First Amendment right.”

If a solution can’t be found, there have been threats of legal action.

It’s all an example of how tensions can arise when one owner’s idea of private property rights collides with traditional neighborhood land use. But unhappy neighbors said it also highlights what can happen when a community is slow or reluctant to uphold its own land-use ordinances.

Jim Stevenson, whose Birch Lane home is located about 100 feet from a large white tent the Colbys erected to hold church services, said that he began talking to Searsport officials about his concerns in early July.

“This is the Wild West and [Chris Colby] is a cowboy,” Stevenson said. “You get away with what you push to get away with. You need a sheriff.”

The town isn’t enforcing zoning ordinances that should prohibit some of these activities, he and other neighbors said.

Michael Housman told Searsport Selectmen this week that the noise and tension in his neighborhood, near Birch Lane, is so stressful that he’s wondering if it’s time to move. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

But James Gillway, the Searsport town manager, disagrees with that assessment. He said that the town has dealt with everything that has come to its attention that is under its purview.

Officials recently told the Colbys that zoning does not permit churches to operate on the property, which is zoned for residential use only. However, the town manager described the church services as a temporary, emergency solution to the problem posed by the curtailment of indoor gatherings during the pandemic. It may be illegal, but the town has reached out to the governor’s COVID task force for more clarity.

“The wrinkle to the whole thing is the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” Gillway said. “They can’t meet inside — they have to meet outside.”

Then there’s this: Birch Lane neighbors believe town officials engaged in a potentially illegal land swap this January when they offered the Colbys the tax-seized parcel connecting property they owned behind Searsport Veterinary Hospital to the private road in exchange for a parcel the town wanted near the cemetery on the Mount Ephraim Road.

“I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one,” Chris Colby said, adding that town officials came to him with the proposal.

But Logan Perkins, the attorney for the McGrath Subdivision Neighborhood Association, said Searsport should have conducted public bids before the swap, and that her clients should have been notified.

In a letter sent this week to selectmen and Gillway, she characterized the swap as a “secret, backroom deal,” adding that her clients believe the deed was written incorrectly. It accidentally conveys five parcels of land within the subdivision to the Colbys that the town never owned, she said.

The town also conveyed to the Colbys an interest in Birch Lane, a private dirt road which is plowed and maintained by residents — and that is not OK with them.

“One of their concerns is just a super practical one,” Perkins said. “If that driveway is going to be the driveway for buses of school kids to come to camp and church services twice a week, that’s going to be a major impact on that little dirt road.”

In addition to connecting a driveway to Birch Lane, the Colbys also are building a road through a gully to get to the beach. Members of the neighborhood association are concerned that by clearing trees in the “watershed” will negatively affect their own road. But this week, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection determined the gully is not a stream.

For his part, Chris Colby characterized the problem as “disgruntled neighbors.”

“Things just aren’t going their way,” he said, adding that he finds it offensive that the neighbors called the town office instead of just talking to him.

“It kind of makes me want to dig in, the more they want to push. I’ve got means, too,” he said.

It will get worse for the neighbors next week, he said. That’s when bulldozers will finish the roadwork.

“I am doing everything within my rights legally,” he said.

Neighbor Stephen Mellor, who lives in the subdivision, compared that approach to bullying.

“If [Colby] would have talked to us first, maybe things would be different,” he said.

Another neighbor who lives close enough to be bothered by the noise and soot from the fires the Colbys have been burning, said he just wants peace.

“It’s gotten to the point when I’m starting to think I may need to move,” Michael Housman told the selectmen.