The St. George Board of Appeals met for the second time on February 23 to review a decision by the Planning Board that preserves the unique wildlife habitat of Watts Cove. In the face of vanishing habitat on the Maine coast, Watts Cove is one of the few remaining feeding grounds for migratory birds. Based on scientific evidence from a number of respected sources, and consistent with the applicable town ordinances, the Planning Board made a conscientious, thoughtful decision to deny a summer visitor a permit for intrusive alteration of the habitat.

Here’s the issue the Planning Board addressed in its decision: Watts Cove is designated as Significant Wildlife Habitat because its mudflats are a life-sustaining feeding ground for certain species of migratory birds. Maine scientists using tracking technology have shown that many of these birds have flown from the Arctic across the Gulf of Maine, depleting their reserves on the long journey. They stop at mudflats like Watts Cove to rebuild their bodily reserves to enable them to continue their long journey. Their Arctic summer feeding grounds are devoid of people and human structures, so they are shy and will leave a feeding ground they experience as unsafe. Scientists have noted that they can die of starvation and weakness if they cannot rebuild their bodies. These facts make the undisturbed upper estuary of Watts Cove special, and in need of protection.

I attended the Planning Board’s meeting on January 10, and was impressed by their thoughtfulness and thoroughness. The members are well-meaning, ordinary St. George citizens who had taken the time to educate themselves with current science so as to know what was at stake. Their conclusion, which I’m paraphrasing, was that “any intrusive structures would have an unreasonable impact on migratory birds.” But they are ordinary citizens, not attorneys, so the minutes read “any” impact would be unacceptable, according to the town ordinance.

The summer visitors’ attorney seized on this cryptic wording, and filed an appeal. That’s what attorneys do.

The Appeals Board opened its meeting with the Chairman, Steve Miller, stating that the Board represents the citizens of St. George. (That seemed a strange statement, when all of the Board members are older white males: doesn’t the Select Board know that there are plenty of highly competent women and younger citizens in St. George?) Then the meeting was taken over by a dominant Board member, Bill Reinhart, who did 98 percent of the talking, framed the issues the way he personally wanted them addressed, then made or suggested all the Board’s motions.  

The ensuing process was flawed: there was no real discussion, just a long monologue by Bill Reinhart. This was unfair to the Planning Board. All the hard work and research they had done to come up with a carefully thought-out and thoroughly debated decision was over-ridden by this one member of the Appeals Board. The Planning Board deserved an unbiased, transparent, and professional hearing and a fair process. What was happening was wrong, and the chorus of citizen protests should have alerted the Appeals Board that they were not carrying out their duty. The Town of St. George is obligated to have an Appeals Board, not an Appeals Czar who can substitute his own personal opinions for the scientific evidence on which the Planning Board has repeatedly come to the same conclusion.

The Appeals Board also introduced new evidence, which the Board is not supposed to do. One member finally spoke up and said he’d seen a heron walk across Route 131, which, to him, demonstrated that birds aren’t affected by human activity. He then added, as further evidence, that there was a local family of geese that was feeding in a field, and after he shot one of them, the flock eventually returned to the field. Nobody on the Board pointed out that these are not the species in need of protection that feed in Watts Cove. Then Bill Reinhart resumed control of the conversation and added his own new evidence, stating that when he walked along the shore, birds take off; when he is past, they return. What species of birds was he talking about? Are they migratory?  This new “evidence” was used to refute the Planning Board’s point that the applicable ordinances required them to take into account the adverse impact on wildlife. All the science went out the window; Bill Reinhart’s personal opinions were substituted for the real evidence.

Bill Reinhart wanted to then bypass the Planning Board and have the Appeals Board issue the permit; he was advised that the Appeals Board couldn’t do that. So instead he pushed to uphold the appeal and “direct” the Planning Board to issue the permit, which is again a usurping of authority. It’s tantamount to his ordering the Planning Board to violate the Town’s ordinance. 

The official decision, listed on the Town’s website, is that “An error was made in the denial of the permit/the denial of the permit was based on a misinterpretation of the ordinance Minutes.” In fact, the error was made only in the phrasing of the Planning Board’s decision. Had they written exactly what they concluded — which was that “any intrusive structures would have an unreasonable impact on migratory birds” — the Appeals Board would not have taken the word “any” out of context and would have upheld the Planning Board’s decision. Well-meaning ordinary citizens serving on boards sometimes make mistakes in phrasing that have unforeseen consequences. The error in phrasing calls for clarification, not for bypassing the Planning Board’s decision-making process and discounting all the evidence and findings, and violating the ordinance.

Now the Planning Board is faced with an ethical choice. If the Planning Board accepts Bill Reinhart’s flawed “directive,” and issues the permit, it will not be upholding the Town’s ordinances. If the Planning Board follows its mandate, and does the right thing by once again turning down the application, there will probably be another appeal by these summer visitors who show little regard for their neighbors, the environment, or the community.

Leonard Greenhalgh, Ph.D, St. George