One of several signs explaining Winthrop’s mooring rules is seen at the south end of Maranacook Lake, known as Norcross Point, in April. Town councilors agreed Monday to revise the controversial policy, which will remain in effect until a new one is adopted. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

WINTHROP —  Following months of heated debate and threatened legal action, town councilors have agreed to revisit controversial new rules that regulate boat moorings in local waters.

The decision Monday to reconsider aspects of the rules comes as a vocal group of boaters is circulating a petition calling for the full repeal of the mooring ordinance. The rules went into effect July 6, prohibiting anyone who does not own shorefront property from setting anchor in any body of water in Winthrop within 200 feet of the shoreline.

Despite the council relenting in the standoff over current rules, local resident Roy Weymouth said he thought the meeting Monday was a step in the wrong direction. The situation has transcended the mooring rules themselves and now raises a number of ethical concerns, he said.

“It’s nothing more than a skit that they put on in front of the townspeople,” he said of the meeting.

Meanwhile, town councilor James Steele is part of a group of about 10 residents who have vowed to take legal action against the town over the ordinance. He said Wednesday that, had the council repealed the ordinance, the group would have backed off those efforts.

The town council in 2021 held three public hearings about the proposed rules and in March this year voted to adopt the first iteration of the ordinance. The town had signs up in April, warning that boaters could be fined if illegal moorings were left in the water, although officials say no one has yet been issued a fine.

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While the ordinance technically applies to all 11 bodies of water in town, those signs were exclusively placed around Norcross Point.

Feeling they were unfairly targeted by the ordinance, boaters with moorings in that area launched a petition asking the council to place a one-year moratorium on the ordinance, giving town officials and residents more time to work out clearer details and find a more viable solution.

Residents who refused to comply received letters from Town Manager Jeff Kobrock asking for voluntary compliance or else be subjected to a fine between $100 to $5,000 each day. Kobrock’s title on the letter is listed as “Mooring Officer,” which boaters said is not legitimate.

According to Daryen Granata, vice president of the State of Maine Harbor Masters Association, since the ordinance cites a part of state law concerning harbor masters, Kobrock would technically be operating as a harbor master, not a mooring officer.

Anyone who is appointed as harbor master, Granata said, has one year after that appointment to obtain the proper training, but that legally Kobrock could operate without the training for that first year.

In October, boaters published an excerpt of an email in the Community Advertiser, obtained via FOAA request, between Kobrock and the town’s attorney in which he said the town has “little interest in a traditional mooring ordinance, as a problem with lakeshore owners has not presented itself,” and asked if there was a way to create an ordinance that specifically gets rid of that one field near Norcross Point.

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The group also accused council Chairperson Sarah Fuller and Vice Chair Andy Wess of voting on the ordinance despite having conflicts of interest.

Before voting Tuesday, council and town attorney Phil Saucier of Bernstein Shur went over the accusations and voted to decide whether Fuller and Wess should be able to weigh in.

Fuller is vice president of van der Brew, a local business adjacent to the mooring field targeted by the ordinance. If the moorings in that area are removed and floating docks are installed, then boaters say Fuller could stand to gain from the ordinance financially.

In an email that boaters obtained via FOAA request, Fuller roughly two years ago wrote that van der Brew and other businesses could benefit from people coming down to the lake, docking and spending money and that van der Brew in particular has received many requests for a dock at the shoreline.

She concluded the email by saying that she should recuse herself from future discussion on the matter because she has “an interest in all sides of this.”

Fuller said the installation of floating docks is not part of the mooring ordinance, and that even if it was it would not guarantee that boaters would choose to do business at van der Brew.

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Boaters say Wess has a conflict of interest because he has a mortgage for the Lakeside Marina and the ordinance could result an increase in business, ensuring that mortgage payments are made on time.

“This has not caused a conflict concerning any decisions I may make while serving on the Winthrop Town Council. It should not cause even the appearance of a conflict,” he said.

Some asked why Wess and Fuller did not make an attempt to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest by disclosure or abstention, as is required under state law, and Fuller said that they did not make any disclosures because the “narrative” of their conflict did not exist at the time.

Members of the audience interjected, telling Fuller to “stand down” and also taking issue with her use of the word “narrative” to describe the accusations.

Councilor Elizabeth Peters pointed out that Steele also has a conflict of interest that he should disclose, referring to the legal action the councilor threatened against the town.

Steele said he has “played by the rules” and left every executive session he was asked to leave, adding that legal action was the only way he and other boaters could be taken seriously.

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“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody else here thinks I’m hiding anything. So I have no conflict of interest.”

The council decided to let Fuller, Wess and Steele vote on the ordinance Tuesday.

Before taking any action related to the ordinance, the council heard several opinions from residents.

Weymouth cited Kobrock’s email that was published in the Community Advertiser. He said Kobrock wouldn’t have had to send the email if there was a viable need for the ordinance. He also cited Fuller’s email, which she has said was sent to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

“That tells me that you had a conflict of interest,” Weymouth said. “Period. You can’t argue it.”

Some attendants also spoke in favor of mooring regulations.

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Larry Fitzgerald, a resident who serves as president of the Martin Point Road Association, said he gathered signatures from every Maine resident who lives on that road and is a member of the association, and that all 22 showed their support for the town keeping the mooring ordinance.

Bill Kieltyka, president of the Cobbosseecontee Lake Association, said while the organization is focused on eliminating Eurasian watermilfoil from the lakes, the mooring situation will have an impact on that lake. He said the group is not taking a position at the moment, but that it will weigh in “when the time is right.”

Resident Sandy Steele said she drove up to every boat entrance on every lake in town, which the ordinance was supposed to cover, and that the town had only placed signs about the mooring ordinance at the south end of Maranacook, and no signs were placed at any of the boat entrances to Cobbossee Lake.

Sandy Steele said that if there is truly a concern about addressing moorings on Cobbossee, then the town should do something about the boats at the Cobbossee Golf Club and Lakeside Marina.

Since accusations were once again brought up during the public hearing, Fuller gave the council another chance to vote on whether or not officials with a conflict of interest accusation should be able to vote on changes to the ordinance. All councilors stood by their older votes.

After a vote for a blanket repeal failed, the council took affirmative votes on several revisions that will be incorporated into a new draft of the ordinance. These revisions include clarifying the grandfathering provision, clarifying the duties of a mooring officer versus a harbor master, clarifying the steps for notices of violation and penalties, clarifying the appeal process, addressing houseboats, establishing and managing one or more mooring fields, and clarifying that the town does not assign mooring sites.

Saucier and Fuller said that a new draft will be publicly available and circulated, possibly as soon as February. The rules of the current ordinance still stand until amendments are finalized by the council.

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