A long-running debate over a proposed ramp and float in St. George is headed to court.

Matt Stern, a resident who lives across a narrow part of Watts Cove from where the facility has been proposed, filed an appeal in Knox County Superior Court Feb. 28 through attorney Paul Gibbons, contesting a Feb. 23 St. George Board of Appeals decision directing the Planning Board to issue a shoreland zoning permit to Bryce and Gail Molloy, the applicants.

The appeal lists the Molloys and the Town of St. George as defendants.

Feb. 28 was the same day the Planning Board had been expected to issue the permit. Code Enforcement Officer Terry Brackett said the town’s attorney advised the board not to issue the permit for the time being, in light of the new appeal.

The appeal alleges that the Board of Appeals violated Stern’s due process rights by meeting with the Molloys in an “unlawful” and “private, unadvertised, working session” prior to a public hearing held Sept. 22.

Speaking by phone, Gibbons said he had arrived early to the public hearing, which had been scheduled for 7 p.m., to address the Molloys’ appeal of a Planning Board denial from Aug. 9. Upon arriving, he said he overheard a discussion between the Molloys and the Board of Appeals over a continuance of the appeal.

The town website’s calendar shows that a Board of Appeals organizational meeting had been posted and scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22, a half-hour before the public hearing. Town Manager Tim Polky confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but said it was primarily held to bring board members up to speed on procedure after a long period during which no board meetings had been held.

The minutes indicate that the meeting consisted of an explanation of the procedure for a Board of Appeals public hearing and lasted 17 minutes. Bryce and Gail Molloy are listed as present, along with members of the board and other town officials, but the minutes do not show any comments from the Molloys or discussion of the specifics of the appeal.

The public hearing began shortly afterward, according to the hearing minutes. At that hearing, a 90-day continuance was granted, and the appeal was eventually heard in December.

Gibbons said he had filed a Freedom of Access Act request for documents related to the meeting. He said he was not alleging that anything specific had taken place, but that board procedures may have been unintentionally violated.

The court appeal goes on to argue that the Planning Board was correct in its third denial of a permit for a ramp and float on Jan. 10, based on a section of the ordinance which states that any proposed use “will not have an adverse impact on spawning grounds, fish aquatic life, bird or other wildlife habitat” in order for a permit to be issued. And it states that the Planning Board had “substantial evidence” to arrive at that conclusion.

The back-and-forth over the Molloys’ application has gone on since last summer. The Planning Board has three times denied a permit for the Molloys’ ramp and float, under different sections of the ordinance, and the Molloys have appealed each denial.

The first application asked for a 32-foot ramp and 12-by-20-foot float. A second application requested a permit for a 26-foot ramp and 12-by-16-foot float in a less visible location.

During the process, Stern raised objections and started a website and mailing list in opposition to the project called the Significant Wildlife Preservation Committee. Several residents have vocally opposed the project, and Planning Board and Appeals Board meetings concerning the Molloys’ ramp and float have seen strong attendance.

While multiple related reasons have been given for opposing the ramp and float, opponents have often argued the ramp and float are out of scale and pointed out that the area is designated as a significant ecological area and bird habitat.

They say outgoing tides leave mudflats in that part of the cove for so much of the day that water access is rare and impractical, with or without a float. At the same time, they say, the mudflats provide a valuable safe feeding ground for migratory birds.

The court documents also refer to conclusions from an environmental scientist, ecologist and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that birds do not feed within around 300 feet of human structures and activities.

“If a property owner can put seasonal floats out there, anyone can, and pretty soon there won’t be any wildlife habitat at all,” said Gibbons. He said an ideal outcome would see a prohibition of seasonal floats in Watts Cove.

The Molloys and their attorney, James Katsiaficas, of Portland, could not be reached for comment. In the past, Katsiaficas has argued that nothing in the ordinance prohibits such ramps and floats, and that the project would provide safe water access from the steep ledges on the Molloys’ property where there currently is none. They also point to recent approval of similar or even larger projects in areas of St. George with similar environmental designations.

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at dsmith@villagesoup.com.