BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Paul Coulombe looks at the east side of the harbor and sees a place stuck in time.

The hotels and restaurants, some of which he owns, haven’t been upgraded since 1987, when the area was rezoned as a maritime district. It was a way to protect the working waterfront, where the wood-sided wharves have chipped paint but are still home to lobster boats and where the unmistakable smell of fish hangs in the air.

Coulombe made a fortune when he sold Lewiston-based White Rock Distilleries six years ago and ever since has been investing tens of millions of dollars in revitalizing the entire Boothbay Peninsula, often amid controversy. He already has purchased more than 50 properties and isn’t done. Now, he wants Boothbay Harbor to rezone the quiet east side to allow mostly upscale tourism-based economic development such as hotels, restaurants and boutique shops in an area where it has effectively been prohibited.

For several months, the town has been debating a host of potential changes that, on paper, affect just a small strip of land. Will the town rezone to allow more development on the east side? Will it increase height limits? Will it allow condos?

In the community, though – at public meetings, in cafes and shops, and along the idyllic waterfront – the discussion has evolved into something bigger, something not easily quantifiable. It seems to come down to whether a man with lots of money to spend will be allowed to remake the town in his image.

“I really care about the identity and charm of Boothbay Harbor, and that’s a big reason I chose to live here and invest,” Coulombe said in an email response to questions from the Maine Sunday Telegram. He declined an interview. Coulombe – depending on whom you ask – is either the town’s savior or villain.

Supporters see a visionary. The only person willing to invest in an area that has seen little investment. All he wants is to give the east side a face-lift, which he can’t do under current zoning. He wants to be able to build new, slightly taller structures and renovate the ones that already exist.

Tom Minerich and his wife, Patty, moved to Boothbay Harbor five years ago, in part because they saw what Coulombe was doing. They have bought and renovated several properties that they now rent to visitors. They have become some of Coulombe’s biggest supporters.

Paul Coulombe on the 17th hole of Boothbay Harbor Country Club’s course. He has bought more than 50 properties in the Boothbay Peninsula and has been homing in on the harbor’s east side.

“A lot of people, even some who are fairly well off, they don’t want any change,” Minerich said. “They don’t care about the schools because they don’t have kids. They don’t care about the local shops because they don’t shop there. They don’t need any of it, but they want the quaintness.”

Critics see Coulombe as an elitist who bullies his challengers. One couple who own a small business in town spoke up at a meeting this spring. They were threatened in an email from Coulombe, who warned that they had “chosen to be an enemy of mine for life.”

Ken F. Fitch, a spokesman for a group called Friends of the Harbor, which opposes changes, said the fight is bigger than one man.

“I don’t think it’s that people are opposed to change, I think it’s the way it’s being done that’s a concern,” he said. “There is a class element to this, all this high-end development to attract the wealthy in. That’s not the bread and butter of this town.”

As town officials revisit zoning ordinances for the east side, they also must wrestle with how to protect Boothbay Harbor’s working waterfront – a part of the coast that is distinctly Maine but slowly eroding, too.

Wendy Wolf, who chairs the town’s board of selectmen, said finding that balance will be challenging but not impossible. She believes town leaders have taken a measured approach and have not caved to any pressure from Coulombe.

Any zoning changes will be subject to a townwide referendum vote, likely early next year.

Until then, both sides will work overtime to make their case, but already the debate has drifted into personal attacks and whisper campaigns, often in dueling letters to the editor printed in the local newspaper, and in the online comments.

For some, the referendum will be on Coulombe himself: Are you with him or standing in the way?

BENEVOLENT OR SELF-SERVING?

In some ways, the debate in Boothbay Harbor already has played out in Boothbay.

Coulombe turned a run-down golf course into a world class facility and pushed to build a traffic roundabout on Route 27 that has dramatically changed the entrance to town and opened up the possibility for him to develop more – condos, even a village of shops adjacent to the traffic circle.

Supporters point to the roundabout, a beautifully landscaped circle that abuts the town common and was possible largely because Coulombe covered a third of its $3.5 million cost, as a clear example of his track record. They also bring up the golf course, which he completely overhauled and where he built a clubhouse that is unrivaled in Maine. This year, he added a pool, fitness center and tennis courts. The club’s president, John Suczynski, said the facility is “beautiful but not garish.”

“The town is changing in a very positive way,” Suczynski said.

Critics point to those same projects as reasons to be skeptical. The roundabout, which only narrowly passed during a townwide referendum in November 2016, was self-serving, Fitch said, in that it supported Coulombe’s future plans, including the “village,” which would be accessed by the new traffic pattern. And the golf course is indeed improved, but it now has a gate at the entrance and amenities that only the wealthy can afford. Memberships start at $3,450 annually, plus an initiation fee of $7,500. The daily rate is $125, which is among the highest in Maine.

This gets at the heart of the discord. Money.

Coulombe has piles of it and isn’t shy about spreading it around. He built a $30 million mansion on the Boothbay Peninsula in nearby Southport that’s on par with the nicest homes in Newport, Rhode Island, or Santa Monica, California. He has luxury cars and boats, including a 112-foot yacht that often can be seen cruising the harbor or docked at one of his hotels. He even tried unsuccessfully to dredge in front of his house on Pratt Island so he could dock the boat.

Coulombe is 65. He has a wife, Giselaine, and an adult daughter from a previous marriage, Michelle, who runs his philanthropic foundation. He’s been a big donor to Republican candidates and causes.

Fitch said Coulombe isn’t the only rich person to settle in Boothbay Harbor, just the loudest.

“But the wealth in this town has always been a very quiet wealth,” he said. “People have been contributing to this town for years without asking for recognition. Paul is built differently. He wants people to know how good he is and how much he’s done.”

Coulombe had indeed made numerous donations to the community in his short time there, including to the local YMCA and to the Boothbay Opera House, where Fitch serves on the board.

Julie Roberts and her husband own a small business in Boothbay Harbor, Coastal Maine Popcorn. They have noticed more visitors to town since Coulombe started investing, and that has been good for them. They also have gotten to know him and don’t understand how some see him as a villain. Roberts said last October, after a major windstorm knocked out power to nearly half the state, including hundreds on the Boothbay Peninsula, Coulombe opened up one of his seasonal hotels, the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort, so people who were displaced could have a place to stay.

John and Lynne Seitzer, who own an art gallery, Joy to the Wind, on the east side of Boothbay Harbor – across from that same hotel – have seen a different side.

They came to the area 20 years ago from the Midwest and chose Boothbay Harbor over other coastal towns.

“It had a feeling that nothing had been lost. It didn’t look like every other town,” Lynne Seitzer explained.

The Seitzers knew who Coulombe was and started attending meetings to learn more about his plans. They didn’t understand why the town was debating an overhaul of the east side to accommodate one person. They didn’t understand why Coulombe’s own engineer had a seat at the table.

So, they spoke up.

Coulombe took notice.

“Your business could prosper but you have chosen to fight against me for no real reason except your own archaic personal fears,” Coulombe wrote in an email to the Seitzers, which they later shared with town officials. “You have chosen to be an enemy of mine for life, that will not bode well for you financially.”

‘SNOW GLOBE ON SOMEONE’S SHELF’

The debate in Boothbay Harbor started late last year and has simmered since.

Last year, Coulombe invested millions to turn the former Rocktide Inn and Restaurant on the east side into the Oceanside Golf Resort. He has since negotiated a purchase of a nearby hotel and marina called Cap’N Fish’s on the east side, even though laws put in place in the late 1980s to prevent a flood of condominiums prohibit him from updating the place. That deal is not yet finalized.

A few years ago, before Coulombe’s plans were known, Boothbay Harbor updated its comprehensive plan. The east side of the harbor was all but ignored.

“I think everyone agreed that it would require a significant investment to update those properties,” said Robert Faunce, who has been a planner for Lincoln County for 20 years and worked on that comprehensive plan. “And it seemed very unlikely that anyone would be willing to make that investment.”

Enter Coulombe.

He engaged with the town about possible zoning changes and the town formed a working group to explore options.

“When we went into the process, the charge was to look at the east side, and to do so for all, not just one developer,” said Wolf, the chairwoman of the town’s board of selectmen.

That working group even included a planner, Dan Bacon, who works for Coulombe. Bacon is quiet and measured, quite different in personality from Coulombe. He said he’s been involved in planning a long time and said what Coulombe envisions, and what the town is considering, is not all that controversial.

“Zoning always needs to be updated,” he said. “It often comes down to the finer details.”

Coulombe said he wants to revitalize that property and others while still preserving the character and charm that people like about Boothbay Harbor. He said the new tax revenue generated by his properties alone should be reason enough for townspeople to support any changes. That’s revenue that can be used to invest in infrastructure, such as schools and roads.

Fitch, though, said critics worry about trusting Coulombe to be the sole arbiter of Boothbay’s sense of place, adding that Coulombe once said his childhood dream was to own his own town.

“I don’t want to live in some snow globe on someone’s shelf,” Fitch said.

Aside from the aesthetic, there are practical impacts to any changes, namely how they will affect the maritime businesses in the harbor.

Monique Coombs with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association said the fight in Boothbay Harbor is not unique but it might be more acute there at the moment.

Coombs’ organization has been pushing back against commercial development that threatens working waterfronts.

“I think the number one concern is access to the water and all the infrastructure that goes with that,” she said. “Lobstermen and fishermen have been slowly squeezed out of a lot of places.”

Coombs said communities can encourage development while still protecting waterfront access, but she’s not sure that’s what will happen in Boothbay Harbor.

“There is a way of life in these communities, an authenticity, that’s going away,” she said.

Coulombe’s supporters insist he doesn’t want to disrupt that.

“This isn’t meant to replace the maritime zone, it’s to supplement it,” Bacon said. “Paul isn’t interested in trying to squeeze a hotel on one of those piers but in reinvesting in what’s there.”

COMBATIVE WITH HIS CRITICS

As a sign of what’s at stake, and how much some people want to thwart Coulombe, ownership of the Sea Pier, an active unloading spot for fishermen and lobstermen on the east side, recently transferred to a nonprofit organization that has pledged to preserve the property. The money to purchase the property for the nonprofit came from an anonymous donor, but the sale was significant because Coulombe had expressed interest in buying it.

He hasn’t been outbid often.

The man who sold the Sea Pier, Doug Carter, did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, write a letter in the local paper, the Boothbay Register, this month that criticized both Coulombe and the town. The headline read, “Can money buy spot zoning,” a reference to an idea floated recently by planners that would effectively create two zones for the area – one for commercial development and one for maritime.

“The Coulombe team has put together a plan that will satisfy his zoning needs to accomplish what he wants on the east side,” Carter wrote. “This plan is Paul’s, not the planning board’s.”

Coulombe, as he does nearly every time there is a letter to the editor that criticizes him or the proposed zoning changes, joined the conversation.

“So what don’t you like that I have done?” Coulombe wrote and then listed a number of things in town that he has funded or donated money to. “What possesses you to insult the most philanthropic person in the community?? The most generous person that helps all the people of the peninsula??”

Coulombe also called out Carter for changing his mind on the east side after getting paid off. He’s convinced that the money came from George and Susan Craig, who also had plans to buy Cap’N Fish’s and have opposed some of Coulombe’s efforts. They declined to comment for this story.

Fitch said no one in town can compete with Coulombe’s resources. Anytime he wants to earn some good will, he can make a donation.

“We’re up against a man who is continually buying lunch and breakfast with everyone here in town,” Fitch said, referring to a series of information sessions Coulombe has hosted at the clubhouse of his golf course.

Coulombe said he’s only been hosting lunches at his properties to educate townspeople. He said everyone is invited, even critics.

“To imply that I am buying votes by providing refreshments at a public information session is absurd and insulting to all attendees and me,” he said.

PENNSYLVANIA LIQUOR BOARD BRIBE

The other thing that keeps coming up in town is Coulombe’s time at White Rock Distilleries and a court case out of Pennsylvania that was quietly settled last year.

According to federal court documents, White Rock was one of several companies that were found to have bribed a liquor board official. The payoffs were described as all-expenses-paid golf trips to Florida. At one, the official stayed at the home of the White Rock CEO – Coulombe. After those trips, Pennsylvania began selling in its liquor stores a host of White Rock products, including Pinnacle Vodka.

The companies that were implicated were each fined. White Rock’s penalty was $2 million.

Coulombe downplayed the penalty.

“White Rock fully cooperated with a government investigation and was never charged with any wrongdoing,” he said, referring to the payoffs as “normal and customary business entertainment practices by sales people that are common and totally appropriate in the liquor industry generally, but not for government employees.”

Coulombe said people who are bringing up that story are “using desperate and inflammatory accusations against me to smear my legitimate and wholly above-board efforts to inform the public of my plans for the East Side.”

Fitch said it’s fair game.

Coulombe’s history and his inability to stop engaging with people who disagree hasn’t stopped the debate. He recently wrote a letter in the local paper saying he was prepared to drop any zoning changes that would allow for condos on the waterfront. It was framed as a concession, but the state Department of Environmental Protection had not yet approved that language.

He still wants to see the area rezoned.

“He’s got a track record in Boothbay,” said Faunce, the county planner. “Some liked it, some didn’t. I think he’s someone who tends to get ahead of himself. If he had more patience, people probably might have less angst.”

That’s an important point. For many in town, it’s not just the changes, it’s how rapidly they seem to be happening.

“I can understand the concerns,” Faunce said. “But there are half a dozen coastal towns that would love to see him develop there.”

Wolf, the select board chairwoman, agreed.

“The thing that is underlying this conversation is: How do we spur growth and economic development in ways that really play to our assets?” she said. “If everywhere you go has the same things, you could be anywhere.”

Correction: This story was updated at 11:20 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, to reflect the status of Paul Coulombe’s purchase of Cap’n Fish’s, a hotel and marina. Coulombe has a purchase and sale agreement, but the deal has not been finalized.

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