Town Shuts Down Boatbuilder Over Zoning Disputes

photograph and text by Steve Cartwright

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on The Working Waterfront website on January 16th; nearly three weeks seems a long time in the news world, and yet David Stimson’s plight has not changed much. “There is something terribly wrong here,” he wrote in a letter to the local newspaper. “Boatbuilding shops have existed in residential areas in Maine for decades, if not centuries. Are we going to allow the imposition of urban and suburban values upon what is left of Maine’s rural character?”

David Stimson stands in front of the partially-completed schooner he was working on when the town shut down his business.

Boatbuilder David Stimson is about ready to move to Belfast, four months after Boothbay officials shut down his boat shop for violating the local zoning ordinance. He’s been building boats for more than 30 years.

Stimson and his wife, Tamora Goltz, are considering leaving the Burnham Cove home they built years ago for themselves and their two sons, who work with their father in the business. Boothbay’s code enforcement officer, acting on complaints from a couple of neighbors, informed Stimson he can’t build boats in a residential district, although he has been building and repairing vessels of varying sizes on his property since 1981. He has already built a new boat shop, with a permit from the town, but is not being allowed to complete the 50-foot steel staysail schooner under construction within the shop.

At issue is whether boatbuilding is a permitted use. Stimson says yes, town officials say no. If Stimson Marine resumes work on the vessel, the company risks a $10,000 daily fine from the town.

If Stimson moves to Belfast, he will seek permission to complete the schooner before leaving, since moving the already-ballasted hull elsewhere would be costly. He estimates he has so far lost $50,000 of income since being shut down by the town.

Town Manager James Chaousis acknowledged that Boothbay officials only looked into Stimson Marine’s operation after receiving a complaint from neighbors: “They pointed it out aggressively,” he says. Chaousis credits Stimson with being completely honest but not educating himself on allowed uses under the town’s 12-year-old zoning ordinance.

He said shutting down Stimson Marine is being “consistent” with the ordinance. At one point, town officials offered a consent decree that would allow him to complete the schooner, which is under contract for a central Maine engineer who wants to sail Arctic seas. But after finishing the schooner, Stimson Marine would be out of business, and that was unacceptable to Stimson.

Chaousis said town officials are considering possible changes to the definition of the residential zone, such as limited boatbuilding, while Stimson maintains his business is already legal. The bulk of his business is repair, thus he is not “manufacturing” boats, he said. Any proposed changes would require voter approval, and Stimson said nearly everyone he sees in town has voiced support for his business.

Stimson said his neighbors objected to noise, but his own tests at the neighbors’ properties revealed a barking dog at 1,000 feet would make more noise than his power tools.

Stimson appealed the code officer’s notice of violation to the town zoning board. The board upheld the shut down based on Stimson’s failure to obtain a “use permit,” but it did not rule on whether he could built boats on his land.

Stimson pointed out he has tried to resolve the zoning dispute with a request for a meeting of concerned parties, but Chaousis, then acting code enforcement officer as well as town manager, didn’t respond to his request. Then on August 29, 2012, town lawyer Sally Daggett wrote to Stimson: “Just a heads up that the code enforcement officer in Boothbay feels that the best process for getting the underlying land use issues related to the 261 River Road property is for the CEO to issue a Notice of Violation.”

Stimson said that came as a shock. “There is something terribly wrong here,” he wrote in a letter to the local newspaper. “Boatbuilding shops have existed in residential areas in Maine for decades, if not centuries. Are we going to allow the imposition of urban and suburban values upon what is left of Maine’s rural character?”

Stimson rebuilt the 56-foot schooner Bagheera for Portland Schooner Company on his property in 2010-2011. Before that, he built and repaired smaller vessels at home. During five years as manager of Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, he oversaw the construction of Valora, a 36-foot schooner he designed for Karl Frey. His shipyard also built a replica of the 1602 Jamestown Colony vessel Discovery, and restored the HMS Bounty, an early replica vessel that was lost at sea during Hurricane Sandy last October. A gale destroyed the Valora on the Martha’s Vineyard breakwater in 2010.

Frey, Valora‘s owner and a Connecticut resident, wrote a letter to the Boothbay Register, a weekly newspaper, in which he said, “Could it be, as America struggles to recover from the Great Recession, that a town in Maine would shut down a successful boatbuilder whose very craft is as connected to Maine as the lobster?”

Frey continues, “In my professional life, I have responsibility for seven different large-scale residential development projects in four states.  A good deal of my time is spent on zoning and entitlement issues. With the guidance of good counsel, we have written zoning ordinances that have been adopted by the towns and cities throughout New England. With professional interest and 25 years of experience, I have taken the time to read relevant sections of the town of Boothbay’s Code. Boatbuilding is specifically encouraged in the residential zone” (see sidebar).

Stimson said he is frustrated that the town appears unwilling to work out a compromise with him. He can’t claim “grandfathered” status because of the time away at Martha’s Vineyard. The ordinance contains a provision that if discontinued for a one year, a business precluded from a zone cannot resume operations. But Stimson argues the ordinance specifically encourages boatbuilding and that his work does not fit the criteria of “manufacturing.”

“Even with the ordinance as it is now, I think what I do is allowed,” Stimson said. Apparently, many Boothbay residents agree. At a series of municipal meetings on the issue, dozens of local people have showed up to support Stimson. The objecting neighbors, who are some 1,100 feet from Stimson’s 40 by 60 foot shed, also attended public meetings.

One of those two neighbors, Mike Tomacelli, declined comment on the case. He operates Mid-Coast Machine Fabrication in another part of town.

Another person known to have complained publicly is John Kelley, Tomacelli’s neighbor on Burnham Cove Road. He reportedly winters in Florida and was unavailable for comment. But according local reports, Kelley is a New Hampshire land surveyor who built a Boothbay retirement home. He is quoted in the Boothbay Register as saying, “If there were noxious uses allowed next door to me, I probably wouldn’t have bought the property.”

Kelley is also quoted by the newspaper as saying, “I have no problem if the honest opinion of the residents (is that) this should occur in a residential zone, But the question that really needs to be asked is, would you want Boothbay Harbor Shipyard to move in next door to you tomorrow?”

Boothbay has an illustrious history of shipbuilding that includes the prestigious shipyards of Hodgdon Yachts, which dates to 1816, and Washburn & Doughty, builder of steel tugs and other commercial vessels. Belfast officials have said they would welcome Stimson Marine to their city.

Steve Cartwright is a freelance writer living in Waldoboro.