RANDOLPH — Selectmen plan to enforce a fee on smelt shacks put up on Kennebec River frontage after challenges to an ordinance’s legality.
On June 28, selectmen Peter Hanley and Edward Gorham voted to have Police Chief and Harbor Master Gregory Lumbert enforce a $15 annual registration fee on the shacks, many of which can be seen each winter on the frozen river around the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge, which connects Gardiner and Randolph.
Tuesday afternoon, Jim Worthing, owner of Worthing’s Smelt Camps on Water Street, was on the agenda at a meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
“What is it for?” said Worthing, of Pittston. “There has got to be a reason for this tax or whatever you’re trying to get.”
“We do tax a lot of things,” Hanley said. “This was brought to the board, and we voted on it.”
Worthing said he rents out close to 85 camps in a typical year — not including private camps he allows to use his frontage — and said he learned of the vote only after it took place.
If all 85 of his camps were assessed the fee, he’d be charged $1,275 every year. Gorham said the town plans to assess fees for next winter.
After the meeting, Hanley said the fee is not a tax but a licensing fee. He said the main motive for its reinstatement was revenue for the town, but he also said Lumbert often gets called to Worthing’s camps in the winter.
Hanley said selectmen were concerned about alcohol-fueled parties that prompted calls to Lumbert.
“He was called out for things I wouldn’t want to put in print,” Hanley said. “Where there’s booze and women, there’s trouble. Sometimes you don’t need the women.”
Lumbert, reached after the meeting, said though Worthing always has been cooperative, alcohol sometimes has been a problem in the area of his shacks.
“Last year, I may have received one or two calls that I wasn’t equipped to handle, so I passed them along to the state police,” he said. “I’ve had no issues with Jim, just some of his clientele.”
Joey Doody of Chelsea said he puts up a private shack in Randolph each winter. He said though he can afford the $15 fee, he opposes it on principle — and the precedent it could set.
“They’re basically claiming they own the water. We, the people, own the water,” he said. “This thing could snowball into every town in Maine.”
Matthew Dunlap, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he spoke with Doody about the ordinance. He said there is a “strong possibility” it is illegal.
“It’s kind of questionable because the Kennebec River is not owned by the town of Randolph. They don’t own the access, either,” he said. “I know towns are looking for revenue, but they aren’t providing a service.”
Doody also has contacted Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner. Stephen Hanley, a cousin of Peter Hanley, said he has a legislative aide researching the legality of such an ordinance.
“There’s some discussion that they couldn’t do it because it’s on tidal water and the shacks aren’t permanent,” Stephen Hanley said. “We’re looking into it.”
Peter Hanley agreed that because the river is tidal, it is owned by nobody; but there is a historic precedent. The town once assessed such fees.
The town is restoring an ordinance passed at Town Meeting in 1992. That document says selectmen may levy a fee on each ice fishing shack. The ordinance was suspended in 2004.
According to meeting minutes, selectmen voted in March 2010 to restore the ordinance but never informed Lumbert, who was supposed to be policing it.
The ordinance says the owner of any shack must register at the Town Office before placing the shack on the ice.
Owners who do not comply will be subject to a fine of up to $100 if a shelter is not registered within 72 hours of notification by the harbor master.
“The working man ain’t got a right to anything. That’s why this country is the way it is,” Worthing told selectmen, adding later, “If I had to do it again, I should have done business somewhere else, not in the town of Randolph.”
Michael Shepherd — 621-5662