PHIPPSBURG — The fate of the remnants of an old pier that has stood along Popham Beach for over 100 years could be decided at a Dec. 7 meeting of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection.

The meeting comes after intense effort by the small village’s residents, who have vocally opposed removing the pilings.

Jack Parker, owner of property at 30 Sea St., adjacent to the pilings, received permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection this year to remove the structure.

Opponents organized an appeal of the state permit, which will be heard at the Dec. 7 meeting.

The controversy started in November 2016, when a Phippsburg Select Board meeting was attended by over a dozen residents who learned of Parker’s applications to remove the pilings.

At the meeting, Parker cited an engineering consultant’s determination that the pilings are a primary cause of erosion along the beach.

“Nothing has changed on our end. It is all about removing the scour and erosion impacts caused by the pilings,” wrote Parker in a recent email. “Sea levels are rising at increasing rates, storm frequencies and intensities are increasing and returning the beach to its natural state is the best way to preserve it. We love the beach as much as anyone. To us it’s a choice of protecting the beach or protecting the pilings.”

An appeal filed by the town of Phippsburg says proof of erosion is not conclusive enough to justify removing the pilings, which many see as a historical and aesthetic asset for the community at the end of a peninsula.

This aerial photo shows regional scouring on the beach, which Jack Parker and the Ransom Engineering report he commissioned conclude is caused by the pilings. Photo courtesy of Jack Parker

A meeting over the summer filled Popham’s small community library with concerned residents who believe the pilings should stay. Ongoing fundraising to pay for legal fees – which the town is not putting any money toward – and an online petition have sprung up as part of the effort.

Many said the beach should be left alone, and that the ebb and flow of sand is just part of Popham Beach.

“The beach here changes constantly. To have a report that kind of says it could impact the scour and the erosion, I think a lot of people felt there needed to be much more substantial site-specific research to show that,” said Barbara Keltonic, a resident who helped write the appeal of the DEP permit. “Several people around that stretch of the beach have said, ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t break it.’ ”

Rafael Villamil, who lives adjacent to Parker’s property, opposes the project. He’s argued at multiple meetings that the pilings protect beach property, rather than endanger it.

“Our part of the beach, our house and the two houses next to us, have never had major storm damage,” said Villamil in an interview in June. “Our house has never been flooded or damaged in a storm for the 70 years that we have known and owned the house.”

He attributes that relative safety, compared to houses farther south, to the pilings.

“The pilings, I feel, are part of that protection. Not the whole thing, but they are part of that protection,” he said.

The project has spurred some passionate opposition. Parker said at a community meeting in June that he received threats and had protesters on his lawn. Accusations that he wants to remove the pilings because they’re an “eyesore” or because he wants to build a dock at the location have also continued.

“We have experienced the full range of opposition from folks who were polite and thoughtful, to vandals, intruders and stalkers,” he said. “When people have nothing substantive to add to a debate, they sometimes resort to personal attacks, some of which have been particularly odious.”

As for wanting a dock, Parker denied the idea as early as November 2016.

At the Dec. 7 meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Augusta Civic Center, the board will hear arguments from Parker and the appellants, but does not include a public comment period.

Board of Environmental Protection Executive Analyst Cindy Bertocci said the board will examine the materials presented by both sides when making a decision. In this case, the chair of the board has allowed some supplemental materials, which were not initially part of the DEP permitting process, to be entered into the record.

Key parts of the argument against removal will likely reference the “existing uses” portion of Maine law, which states that any permitted activity in a waterway “will not unreasonably interfere with existing scenic aesthetic, recreational or navigational uses.”

Keltonic said the sheer number of photographs and paintings of the pilings is a good indication of their aesthetic value to the community. A popular Facebook page, “I love Popham Beach,” frequently contains pictures of the old pier, which has been the subject of photographs and paintings for decades.

“They’re iconic,” said Keltonic.

Another issue is the title on the pilings. Because the pilings are located below the mean low tide, the state owns them, technically. The appeal states the Parkers haven’t documented their title, right or interest in removing the pilings.

In the end, the board can affirm the permit, affirm it with some additional conditions, reverse the DEP’s decision and deny the permit, remand the permit back to the DEP for additional processing, or hold a hearing on the subject if the record isn’t complete.

“Assuming the board either reverses or affirms, whoever doesn’t like that decision can appeal to Superior Court,” said Bertocci.

Both parties have said they will make any decision on appeal or removal after Dec. 7.

“There will be decision on Dec. 7, one way or the other,” said Keltonic.

“We will wait to see what the Board of Environmental Protection decides before we make any plans,” said Parker.

For more information on the appeal, visit www.phippsburg.com and click the “Popham Pilings Page” link. For more information on the board meeting, visit www.maine.gov/dep/bep.