Critics of an application to build a boat ramp on the Sheepscot River for use by a sportsman’s club are asking the Alna Board of Selectmen to order a halt to club operations, but two of the three selectmen have recused themselves from the matter.
Project opponents say the Golden Ridge Sportsman’s Club needs a business permit in order to operate, while an attorney for club founder and property owner Jeff Spinney calls their arguments an unfounded attack.
First Selectman Melissa Spinney is married to Jeff Spinney and had already recused herself from any action on the project. During a meeting Wednesday, May 20, Second Selectman Doug Baston recused himself as well.
Baston said he has a conflict of interest because he wrote the definition of business when he was on the Alna Planning Board.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to vote and effectively tip the scales to one side or the other,” Baston said. “I checked that view out with our town attorney and she agrees that ethically it’s not the right thing to do.”
“I guess it dies for a lack of quorum,” Baston said. Since any action on the letter is discretionary, he said, the matter will fall to the planning board.
Project opponents are also asking the planning board, which Jeff Spinney chairs, to suspend consideration of the application until the club obtains a permit. Jeff Spinney too has recused himself from consideration of the project.
The project has drawn opposition from residents of Alna, Newcastle, and the surrounding area who say it would bring development and a previously unseen level of boating activity to a pristine area of the river.
Other concerns center on Jeff Spinney’s role with the planning board and his wife’s role as first selectman, despite their recusals.
Spinney has applied to build a permanent boat ramp, with a dock and float system, on the Sheepscot River.
The project consists of a permanent access platform and pilings on shore, a 4-foot-by-40-foot seasonal ramp, and a T-shaped seasonal float system. The float system will have a 5-by-7 landing float perpendicular to the shoreline and an 8-by-24 main float parallel to the shore.
Spinney’s project requires three permits: one each from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and the town. He has the Army Corps and DEP permits.
A May 4 letter was the first of multiple letters from project opponents to the board of selectmen and planning board asking them to cease club activities and the application process.
Cathy Johnson, a resident and retired attorney who practiced environmental law, gave the letters to the board. About 50 people have signed each letter, including Johnson and former Second Selectman Ed Pentaleri, another outspoken critic of the project.
The letter says the club is in violation of the town’s building code ordinance and shoreland zoning ordinance, and asks the town to suspend consideration of Spinney’s shoreland zoning application before the planning board until the club has a business permit.
The May 4 letter includes a detailed list of reasons why Spinney’s project requires a business permit. The same list is part of a May 6 letter to the planning board.
Spinney’s lawyer, Kristin Collins, wrote a letter to the selectmen in response to the May 4 letter.
Collins said the provisions in the building code ordinance “are intended to apply to businesses with buildings or business sites.”
The Golden Ridge Sportsman’s Club “does not have a building or site; it has no place of business, because it is not a business. While it may gain permission to use certain recreational sites for hunting or fishing, those sites certainly will not be places of business,” Collins said.
The club was incorporated to create an entity that can accept donations and support member activities, Collins said. She compared the club to a snowmobile club, a garden club, or the Boy Scouts.
“It does not sell any products or goods. It does not sell any services to its members or to the public. Members have not yet imposed dues upon themselves, but if they do, those funds would not be ‘revenue’ or ‘profit,’” Collins said.
Collins called the May 4 letter a “collateral attack” on Spinney’s application.
Project critics responded to Collins in a May 12 letter. At the May 20 selectmen’s meeting, Baston said the selectmen had not received the May 12 letter.
“We note that despite Ms. Collins’ assertion that an actual building is required in order for a business to be subject to regulation under the town’s (building code ordinance), no such requirement is in the definition of ‘business’ in the ordinance,” the May 12 letter states.
The letter says several Alna businesses operate in different places, such as those that provide housekeeping or landscaping services, or music lessons.
The letter compares the club to a country club “in terms of the legal rights of access granted to members to both property and facilities in exchange for income generated by member dues.”
According to the May 6 letter from project opponents to the planning board, the DEP application for the project cites the needs of the club as the reason for the project.
The letters to both the board of selectmen and planning board say the club is a business, as defined in the building code ordinance.
The ordinance defines a business as: “Any enterprise engaged in the sale, lease, production, or distribution of any products, equipment, supplies, goods, commodities, including plants and animals, or services which are sold, leased or distributed by the owner or an affiliated person where revenue exceeds $500 per year.”
The Golden Ridge Sportsman’s Club was first registered as a limited liability company in May 2019, then as a nonprofit corporation in December 2019, according to the letters from critics.
The May 4 and 6 letters from project opponents say the club’s annual revenues from members, including Spinney, “must be significantly in excess of $500 to cover all club expenses.”
The letters also say the club constitutes a commercial use as defined in the shoreland zoning ordinance.
The ordinance defines commercial use as “the use of lands, buildings, or structures, other than a ‘home occupation,’ defined below, the intent and result of which activity is the production of income from the buying and selling of goods and/or services, exclusive of rental of residential buildings and/or dwelling units and commercial alewife fishing.”
According to Alna’s building code ordinance, new businesses must obtain business permits.
The requirement to obtain a business permit does not exempt nonprofits, the letters state. Other Alna nonprofits, such as the Juniper Hill School for Place-based Education, have business permits.
After a discussion of the correspondence May 20, the selectmen opened the meeting for public comments. Pentaleri was among the speakers.
“You’ve tried again to punt this to the planning board and, according to the ordinances, the planning board does not have enforcement authority, so it’s the selectmen that have enforcement authority,” Pentaleri said.
Resident Jeff Philbrick addressed the board about an appointment to the board of appeals.
“It seems a little bit inconsistent that here we have vacancies for the planning board that haven’t been filled for a number of months and now we have one for the board of appeals that is going to be filled,” Philbrick said.
Due to the large number of people signing Johnson’s letter, Philbrick said, “that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
“We would like a pause on the shoreland zoning application decision until we get to the bottom of what are all the other things happening at 126 Golden Ridge Road with this organization,” Philbrick said.
Resident Carol Ervin said she has an appeal on the Spinney project pending with the board of appeals. The appeal has to do with a letter from the code enforcement officer that says a gravel boat ramp at the property predates municipal ordinances, according to Ervin.
Like Philbrick, Ervin questioned why the selectmen appointed a new member of the board of appeals when they have not filled a vacancy on the planning board.
“It causes me concern as a person with an appeal,” Ervin said.
Baston said the selectmen “didn’t want to fill a planning board vacancy in the midst of a controversy” and “wouldn’t want to fill a board of appeals appointment in the midst of a controversy.”
“The idea was to get ahead of it and fill the vacancy,” he said. “When you are in the middle of a controversy, it’s difficult to find someone who you can be sure would be neutral.”
The selectmen appointed Dave Buczkowski to the board.
Ervin questioned Buczkowski’s neutrality on the matter.
Buczkowski said he tries to be neutral. He said he has read news articles about the project and read the documents on file with the planning board.
Town Treasurer Amy Stockford spoke on the financial impact of the application. The town spent almost $10,000 for legal fees in the first quarter of the year. The fees were primarily for services to the planning board.
“In the last four years, we really haven’t been anywhere close to that,” Stockford said.