Gouldsboro seeks answers in enforcing timber rules

GOULDSBORO — Nearly five years ago, town Planning Board members entered into an agreement with the Maine Forest Service: if any tree harvesting violations are found in the area, it would be the joint responsibility of the town and the state to handle the issue.

That decision, which turned down the option to give full control over violations to either the town or the state, made Gouldsboro unusual. Only 76 towns in Maine have chosen that option.

Even more unusual: Gouldsboro is one of only about three towns that have ever moved to enforce timber harvesting rules in conjunction with the state.

Last year, according to town officials, Hancock contractor George Moon cut trees right up to the shore on Corea’s Point Francis, allegedly violating forest service standards in the process. Moon has said he followed all forestry rules he was aware of. A forester, Jim Ecker, identified four possible violations by eye and is currently examining the case using computer analysis to determine whether the cuts were a violation.

The case would be the first time Gouldsboro enforced a rule along with the state, and it has presented some key questions for Planning Board members.

The Maine Forest Service is responsible primarily for examining the possible violations and issuing a set of penalties for the contractor, if any are justified. The town, in these cases, has access to the case file and the authority to prosecute if necessary.

According to Planning Board member Bonnie Kane, if prosecution is recommended and the town fails to move forward within 90 days, the forest service will prosecute a defendant itself.

“This is the first time that the town has had to deal with this, so we don’t have any historical knowledge about what the process is,” Kane said. “We’re basically relying on the Maine Forest Service for the steps that are going to be followed.

“Obviously they know a lot more about their own rules and standards.”

She said when the town entered into the agreement with the forest service, it adopted the same timber harvesting rules as that organization. But one key problem, Kane said, is that a rule related to this case — defining an “opening” within a shoreland zone — isn’t spelled out within the forest service’s official rules. Instead, she said, that rule has been ironed out within an “interpretation document” issued by the department.

That rule is one of the key aspects in the Moon case, as the cuts he made fell within the shoreland zone.

“But the town didn’t adpot that interpretation document; we only adopted the statewide standards,” Kane said. “And as a board, we need to be able to show the black and white on the page … that says, ‘You didn’t do what you were supposed to do.’”

Determining how to address that problem, Kane said, can only come through working with the forest service on the case.

The town is working with Ecker, the forest service’s district forester for Hancock and Penobscot counties, and forester Sandy Walczyk.

“Fortunately we have a really good forester with a lot of experience who can tell us how to do this,” said Planning Board Chairman Ray Jones. “We’re depending on the code enforcement officer [Rebecca Albright] as well … they’re the ones who have been counseling us.”

The adoption of this method was supported by the town’s former code enforcement officer, Ed Brackett. Jones said he supported the move then because it allowed the town to have some control over issues and took advantage of state resources.

“We’d have hands-on control through our own ordinance,” Jones said. He had been chairman of the Planning Board at the time the rule was adopted. “Now that we’re having to do something, thank goodness we have the state backing us up.”

Town Manager Bryan Kaenrath said the Moon case is really on hold until the forest service issues a report with its findings on the matter. There has been no contact with attorneys by the town, he said.

But for others in the community, the case presents some problems. At a recent selectmen’s meeting, resident Melinda Boumans said she was concerned about the legal precedent that this case would be setting.

Boumans praised the work of Jones, Kane, Albright and the foresters, but said she was worried that in the future there may not be as adept public officials working on a case. If the rules are only written in “interpretation” documents, she said, it would put the town in a difficult spot in terms of how to enforce.

“If we are going to co-manage,” she said, “what is going to be the regulatory philosophy of the town? … How do we stand up to the Maine Forest Service if we disagree with them?”

Board member Roger Bowen said he felt her questions raised important points.

“I think your cautionary note, and that’s what I’m hearing, is appropriate,” Bowen replied. “So I guess it’s, ‘Let’s wait and see.’”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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