2015-08-14 / Front Page

Grist mill is back in the grinder

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


The Clem Clark Boathouse, purchased by the Kennbunkport Conservation Trust in 2006 as part of the former Perkins Mill property, is at the center of a plan to rebuild the tidal-powered grist mill. Planning board approval hinges on whether it views the boathouse as a museum. Opponents of the project say that despite $200,000 invested in the building by KCT since 2009 to facilitate public access to view its collection of vintage shipbuilding tools, the boathouse was never specifically permitted as a museum. (Duke Harrington photo) The Clem Clark Boathouse, purchased by the Kennbunkport Conservation Trust in 2006 as part of the former Perkins Mill property, is at the center of a plan to rebuild the tidal-powered grist mill. Planning board approval hinges on whether it views the boathouse as a museum. Opponents of the project say that despite $200,000 invested in the building by KCT since 2009 to facilitate public access to view its collection of vintage shipbuilding tools, the boathouse was never specifically permitted as a museum. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — The fight over whether reconstruction of the historic Perkins Grist Mill in Kennebunkport should be allowed has been a slow grind, even in its most recent iteration, pulverizing more than five hours of planning board time in recent weeks.

The original mill, built in 1749, was in active operation until the 1930s. It later became a restaurant and its life ended at the end of an arsonist’s match in 1994.

The Kennebunk Conservation Trust purchased the 1.7-acre lot, which includes the Clem Clark Boathouse, in 2006 for $600,000. In 2010, the Trust began submitting applications to rebuild the mill to its original specifications as a means to bring alive the town’s history as a working waterfront.

After the original application was turned down because construction was not allowed in the tidal area, KCT came back with plans to make it an educational center. That also failed to pass muster.

The latest application cuts out the learning commons, reducing the scope of the project from nearly 2,500 square feet down to 801, roughly the footprint of the original mill.

In order to get past local and state limitations in the waterfront and resource protection zones, the newest application claims the mill as an “accessory building” to the Clem Clark Boathouse.

A museum is a permitted use with planning board exceptions in Kennebunkport’s Village Residential zoning district, and the mill would be allowed as an “accessory use.”

But therein lies the rub. Attorney John Bannon of Portland law firm Murray Plumb & Murray represents several abutters and nearby neighbors of the proposed grist mill. At the July 22 planning board meeting, he argued that the permits granted to KCT when it applied to open the boat house make no mention of it being a museum. However, town attorney Amy Tchao has advised the planning board that while it’s true the boathouse was not permitted as a museum, specifically, it was granted a occupancy permit and has hosted field trips from local schools to see the shipbuilding tools on display there two or three times per year ever since.

“I don’t think the planning board should be saying the trust is not using the boathouse property in a manner where approval has not been granted,” she said at the July 22 board meeting. “Everyone has known how it’s been since since 2011 and no one has appealed. There is a principle of finality that should be given to that.”

Tchao also noted that in its 2011 decision, the planning board required four parking spaces at the boathouse, using local ordinance standards for a museum.

However, Bannon advised the board differently.

“You cannot infer from the fact that the planning board discussed the parking, and only the parking, as applicable pertaining to a museum as being equivalent to site plan review of a museum as a conditional use in the boat house,” he said.

Bannon pointed out that the planning board’s 2011 ruling only allowed connection of utilities and construction of a boat ramp.

“That inexorably leads to the conclusion that if I, the applicant, want something else, I have to come back,” Bannon said. “The fact they the planning board didn’t state the obvious does not mean the trust automatically had the right to conduct a museum in the boathouse.”

At the July 22 meeting, which lasted more than three hours, neighbors Laura McGrath of Oak Street and Pete Warren of North Street, said they’ve never actually seen anyone visit the boathouse. In essence, they argued, the boathouse is a storage facility. However, even if the field trips did take place, that alone should not qualify the boathouse as a museum, they said, noting that KCT does not advertise it as such, even on its own website.

“Having a field trip once or twice a year doesn’t turn a storage locker into a museum,” Warren said.

“In six years, I have never once seen the boathouse open to the public as a museum,” McGrath said.

However, the trust got its turn to rebut the opponents of the project in an Aug. 5 planning board meeting that lasted another two hours.

“The trust does not have a flashing neon sign that says ‘Museum,’ but it does have a website that talks about the site and it does encourage the public to visit,” said attorney Ralph Austin, of the law firm Bergen Parkinson, which represents KCT. “The museum is open to the public. The trust does not keep regular hours there, but that is not a requirement under the land use ordinance.”

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Austin and attorney Durward Parkinson brought forth a number of expert witnesses, including the owner of a Waco, Texas grist mill KCT will use for period 18th-century materials in rebuilding the Perkins mill, to rebut abutter fears.

Flour dust and noise can be issues, but only in an industrial mill. The Perkins rebuild will be a pre-industrial product, albeit with insulation and modern electrical switches to reduce noise and fire danger. There will not be enough flour made or stored on site to create a risk of spontaneous combustion, they said.

The important thing, they agreed, is that once rebuilt, the Perkins Mill will be the only working grist mill powered by tidal action in all of North America, creating a tangible link to the past for tourists and school children alike.

Tom Bradbury, executive director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, also said fears of crowds, parking nightmares and devastated viewscapes are overblown.

“We think the mill we are proposing is modest in scale,” he said at the Aug. 5 meeting. “We don’t believe it will disrupt the view of the river. In fact, we strongly believe it will enhance it. The mill was one of the most beautiful sites in town for over 250 years. Countless postcards and paintings were made of it and its reflection in the mill pond. I haven’t seen one card made since its loss.

“We are confident that tourists will not be terrorizing the neighborhood and that use of the mill will not lead to an outbreak of diphtheria or any other disease,” Bradbury said, while Austin added that several state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, have already signed off on the project.

“We firmly believe that the building of the grist mill adds to the beauty and character of our community, that it can be run safely and quietly without adversely affecting the neighborhood, and that it meets every legal requirement,” Bradbury said.

But how the planning board may rule remains to be seen and much depends on their interpretation of the existing permits. Still, McGrath said the board should use a different, more common sense standard.

“Would any board members like to live next to this property,” she asked.

According to planning board Chairman David King, attorneys for KCT and the project opponents had until Aug. 12 to submit their own “findings of fact” for the planning board to consider.

The board is expected to debate the issue and deliver a ruling at its next meeting, Aug. 19.

Return to top