Pembroke becomes latest Maine town to put a moratorium on development

Voters overwhelmingly approve a measure to pause development, amid concerns about a resident who has purchased hundreds of acres of land over the past several years.
A map of Pembroke, Maine.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming's affiliated LLCs own 12 properties in Pembroke, including a 131-acre farm, another 58-acre property that includes a blueberry barren, a 50-acre property and several smaller parcels.

Pembroke voters approved a six-month moratorium on new, non-residential development amid concerns about a resident who purchased 12 properties, and launched a farm store and other businesses in the Washington County town over the past several years.

By a 66-8 margin, voters in a special town meeting Wednesday approved a moratorium that says the town was “suddenly faced with the prospect of increased development pressure.” The measure says that residents are concerned that new development “could pose a threat to the quality of life, adjacent property values, and the health and safety’’ of the town.

The moratorium — like others enacted in towns across the state — is meant to give Pembroke time to write and adopt planning ordinances to regulate new development the state is experiencing, a town official said. It could be ended sooner than six months if the planning ordinances are finalized earlier. 

It was approved over the objections of Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who has purchased hundreds of acres of land through several LLCs and affiliated organizations since 2017.

“This sweeping moratorium was revealed by the Selectmen on one of the coldest nights of winter, with no notice to the public and no public hearing, just one week before it was scheduled to be voted on at a hastily called special town meeting,” Fleming wrote on Facebook shortly before Pembroke voters approved the measure on Wednesday. 

In an interview, Fleming said she has faced a “culture of misogyny and condescension” and “bullying” as she tried to build her businesses and obtain permits from Pembroke. Her attorney said the moratorium will not impact their upcoming plans to re-open a farm store and begin a commercial kitchen.

The daughter of two prominent urban planners, Fleming is a farming advocate, documentary filmmaker and community organizer. She is the director of a grassroots young farmers organization called Greenhorns.

Fleming’s affiliated LLCs own a 131-acre farm, another 58-acre property that includes a blueberry barren, a 50-acre property and several smaller parcels. Another organization owns a one-time Odd Fellows hall built in 1896 that now houses a library of books on agriculture. 

In Pembroke, she has started a farm store, commercial kitchen, campground and kelp farm, among other ventures. Last year her Smithereen Farm received a $370,482 federal grant to create a “comprehensive local food hub” that features Maine-grown products.

Fleming said she sees her efforts as economic development that fosters local, organic farming, but the multitude of projects and ideas have stirred resentment among some local residents. 

“Nobody here asked her to come help,” Tony Bennett, the chairman of the Pembroke planning board, said in a December interview. 

Robin Hadlock Seeley, a leading critic of Fleming, added: “I don’t appreciate being in someone else’s experiment in taking over a town.”

Some residents and town officials also expressed concern about potential environmental damage from a septic tank system as part of a commercial kitchen planned by Fleming. Her lawyer said they are working with state and local officials to alleviate the concerns. 

In addition, the state fire marshal, responding to a complaint from a town official, inspected two of the properties and issued a letter last month asking Fleming to obtain state construction permits. She said she has submitted a design plan to address the issues raised by the fire marshal. “We are in full compliance with state law,” she said.

The Pembroke building moratorium was advanced by the town planning board and selectmen. Bennett said the temporary halt will give the town time to examine gaps between the building ordinance and the shoreland zoning ordinance.  

But Aga Dixon, who is Fleming’s attorney, said the moratorium is overly broad and could inhibit other commercial development and business in the town. She said Pembroke officials did a “really poor job” of developing a public process to educate voters on the measure.

Dixon said the moratorium would not slow Fleming’s plans to operate the farm store and commercial kitchen. They plan to reopen the farm store in the spring.

The Maine Monitor reported last month that voters in towns across the state have enacted temporary moratoriums to tap the brakes on big developments. Towns have used the method to develop regulations governing solar farms, wind turbines and aquafarms, subdivisions and other large-scale projects, giving towns time to review what regulations they have and what they might need to adopt.

In Columbia Falls, town officials have spent several months putting together a proposed moratorium on development, hosting a public meeting on the measure and conducting a survey of residents. That proposal emerged after the Worcester family proposed a $1 billion “Flagpole of Freedom” park development for Columbia Falls.


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David Dahl

Veteran journalist David Dahl serves as the editor of The Maine Monitor, overseeing its daily operations. David was most recently a deputy managing editor at the Boston Globe. Before joining the Globe, David worked for 20 years at the St. Petersburg Times. He was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University and a fellow at the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University. He has also been an adjunct professor of journalism at Emerson College, Boston College and Boston University. David and his wife, Kathy, enjoy tennis and kayaking at their home in Friendship. They have two adult children.
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