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The sunken wreckage of the Cora F. Cressey, a wooden schooner that serves as a breakwater at the Bremen Lobster Pound Co-Op, a working waterfront property in Maine owned by Boe Marsh. Residents in several Maine coastal communities are debating how their shoreline should be developed.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
By Lisa PrevostDec. 25, 201
BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Me. — As a child, Paul Coulombe used to spend lazy summer days with his family in this tiny coastal village. Now, convinced the town “hasn’t kept up,” he has plans to reshape it.
Mr. Coulombe, a 65-year-old liquor magnate, has spent the last 10 years pouring his fortune into upgrading the Boothbay region long known as a summer vacation spot where tourists wander footbridges, take boat tours and eat lobster rolls. His aim, he said, is to bolster tourism as a way of “helping everyone in the community.”Paul Coulombe estimates he has invested roughly $100 million into redevelopment efforts in and around Boothbay Harbor, Me.CreditDerek Davis/Portland Press Herald, via Getty Images
Some residents are skeptical.
His purchase and renovation of the country club in neighboring Boothbay caused grumbling about higher fees and fancy trappings. His takeover of the Cuckolds lighthouse restoration effort drew derision after the project morphed into a $600-a-night bed-and-breakfast. And his championing of a new roundabout for a traffic-clogged thoroughfare sharply divided voters.
But Mr. Coulombe’s latest proposal, aimed at the heart of this close-knit harbor town, may prove to be the most divisive yet. At his urging, town officials are considering opening up the east side of the harbor, restricted for the past 30 years to traditional maritime uses like lobster fishing, to allow new tourist-oriented development.Boothbay Harbor Inn, left, and Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort, both properties owned by Mr. Coulombe.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
A planning board proposal under review would maintain the restrictions on the small portion of the harbor with piers used by lobster fishermen, buying stations and a bait supplier. But the other three-quarters of the so-called Maritime District, which is lined with modest wooden inns, which were built before the restrictions were in place. The district would be rezoned, making it possible for them to be redeveloped.
Critics say the town should not give up a scarce resource. Only 20 miles of Maine’s 3,500-mile shoreline can still be considered working waterfront, according to the Island Institute, a community development organization. Maine Preservation, a nonprofit group, even put Boothbay Harbor’s working waterfront on this year’s list of the state’s Most Endangered Historic Places, citing the threat posed by the zoning proposal.Ken Fitch, spokesman for Friends of the Harbor, a group opposed to zoning changes along the Boothbay Harbor’s waterfront. “The east side should look authentic as working waterfront – it’s not supposed to look like a resort,” he said.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
“The east side should look authentic as a working waterfront — it’s not supposed to look like a resort,” said Ken Fitch, a spokesman for Friends of the Harbor, a group opposed to the proposal. “The sheer volume of what that man wants to do is what scares us.”
But supporters of the rezoning point out that the harbor’s existing fishing operations have not expanded since the district was established in the 1980s. And given the town’s aging population and efforts to expand the economic base and attract young families, many say it would be foolish to forgo the tens of millions in investment that Mr. Coulombe is dangling.Tourists in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Mr. Coulombe wants to bolster tourism in the town.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
“It feels like it could be a missed opportunity,” said Martha Gleason, a co-owner with her husband of Gleason Fine Art, a gallery situated among the dense array of shops and cafes on the west side of the harbor. “I’m absolutely thrilled with what he’s done so far. He does very classy work.”
Such a clash of interests is already playing out an hour to the south in Portland, where the City Council this month enacted a six-month moratorium on waterfront development in response to a campaign by local fishermen who say increased traffic and a lack of parking are making it harder for them to get to their boats.Mr. Marsh in the bait locker of his working waterfront operation in Bremen, Me. “It’s great to be able to protect something like this,” he said. “We’re giving people the ability to stay in place and hold on to what they’ve got.”CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
“The question Maine is dealing with is, how do we balance tourism and the working waterfront?” said Monique Coombs, the director of marine programs at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “Yes, people think the fishing industry is declining. But we shouldn’t assume there aren’t opportunities there. Seafood is crucial to the Maine economy, and it is a draw for tourism.”
Some towns, including Belfast and Bar Harbor, are committing to new investment in a working waterfront, with both public and private dollars. In the tiny town of Bremen, on the Medomak River and Muscongus Bay, Boe Marsh, a businessman who moved to town 15 years ago, bought out a long-established co-op owned by lobster fishermen and, working alongside them, has invested several hundred thousand dollars into diversifying and updating the operation, called Community Shellfish.“The question Maine is dealing with is, how do we balance tourism and the working waterfront?” said Monique Coombs, the director of marine programs at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
Oysters now grow in dozens of pillowlike floats on a two-acre section of water along the company’s quarter-mile waterfront. Lobster fishing boats unload their catches on a stone pier that dates to the 1930s. Various small buildings house a bait storage room, a processing facility and a new 16,000-gallon lobster tank, with temperature controls to keep the crustaceans in hibernation until they are sold.
Mr. Marsh said he was looking to further diversify through partnerships with entrepreneurs interested in mussel and kelp farming.David Bean, the president of Bristol Lobster Sales, a lobster-buying station run by his family since 1962.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
“It’s great to be able to protect something like this,” he said. “We’re giving people the ability to stay in place and hold on to what they’ve got.”
In Boothbay Harbor, a town of roughly 2,000 year-round residents, the issue is so fraught that emotions frequently spill out in public. Mr. Coulombe regularly jousts with his critics online, and he acknowledged saying some things he regretted.
“Paul can be brash and speaks his mind fairly readily, and I think that turns some people off,” said Chuck Fuller, a supporter who owns a lobster bait and marine construction business on the east side. “On the flip side of that, most of the time we know what his opinion is. He’s upfront.”
A native of Lewiston, a town about 50 miles from Boothbay, Mr. Coulombe sold his family-run White Rock Distilleries to the parent company of Jim Beam for $605 million in 2012. He lives in a $30 million mansion he built in nearby Southport. He estimates he has invested roughly $100 million into redevelopment efforts in the Boothbay region.A lobster pound is repurposed as an oyster farm at the working waterfront owned by Mr. Marsh.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York TimesImageA lobster pound is repurposed as an oyster farm at the working waterfront owned by Mr. Marsh.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
Mr. Coulombe said he too valued preservation of Boothbay Harbor’s existing working waterfront. But he believes it is past time for the hotels there to be upgraded. He has already begun buying up property in the district, turning the former Rocktide Inn into a hotel extension of his country club, the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort. But, he said, he cannot complete the full renovation under existing zoning.
“It doesn’t have central air-conditioning or elevators, and is really not handicapped-accessible,” he said. “We can’t even be open in the winter because all of our water pipes are too exposed and would freeze.”
He recently pulled out of an agreement to buy another inn for redevelopment, chastising town officials for not acting on the zoning change more quickly, which he said was costing the town jobs and tax revenue.
“He wants everything done so fast, you don’t see what’s happening until it’s too late,” said David Bean, the president of Bristol Lobster Sales, a lobster-buying station run by his family since 1962. “It’s getting to be like ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ here now. Some of the people like that, but that’s not the look I’m looking for.”
Mr. Bean prefers that the town take its time thinking through a plan for the east side, considering things like whether high-paying hotel guests are going to be tolerant of “the smell of fish, the diesel fumes, the old guy who blasts Patsy Cline on an eight-track all summer long when he goes out in his boat at 4:30 in the morning.”
Some residents are acting to protect the working piers on their own. Douglas Carter, 76, recently sold his Sea Pier to a new foundation started by a resident with deep ties to the fishing community. The sale includes a deed restriction requiring the property, used by 30 fishermen, to be left in maritime use.
Meanwhile, town officials are bringing in an independent planner to review the rezoning proposal, before deciding whether to put it before voters in May. Michael Tomko, who sits on the board of selectmen, said he felt enormous pressure to “get this right.”
“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor to Paul,” he said, “but I also want to be a good neighbor to the rest of the community.”A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 26, 2018, on Page B5 of the New York edition with the headline: In Maine, Restoration vs. Redevelopment. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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