BAR HARBOR — Three years and tens of thousands of dollars after work on it began, the town’s open space conservation plan failed to gain traction with town councilors this month.
The plan, which was put together by the conservation commission, summarizes both protected and desired open spaces and offers strategies for achieving more conservation. It also contains a vast amount of information about the town’s natural habitats and scenic, cultural and hydrological resources.
Town councilors on May 5 thanked the commission for their work but stopped short of accepting or adopting the plan.
“This document scares the H out of me. We send this forward, and with these strategies and these implementations, we’re going to have problems for a long time,” councilor David Bowden said. “We’re talking about taking people’s individual rights away if they develop their land.”
Even while conservation commission chairman Jill Webber and others pointed out that the conservation strategy recommendations in the plan are non-binding, Bowden and a majority of counselors remained troubled by the direction the plan could steer town policies in the future.
“I think that down the road that a property owner would read this who may think they might want to do something with 30 acres at some point, five years, 10 years down the road, would see things that made them nervous,” councilor Burt Barker said.
A couple of large-property owners that turned out for the meeting said that what they saw in the plan did, in fact, cause unease.
Paul MacQuinn, a third-generation landowner in Hulls Cove with about 200 acres, said that he felt his land was in the conservation crosshairs of the open space plan. MacQuinn’s land, which runs for 900 feet along Route 3, includes an old wooden wagon and is frequently cited as one of the town’s scenic resources.
“I really feel that this document has a lot of targets towards my piece of property. I realize that it’s voluntary, but when they really point out things that are on my property, that’s what gets me really concerned,” he said. “The one that bothers me the most is, if you don’t join this, then you are going to have an open space impact fee ordinance. Down the road, if … I decide that I want to develop it, or I want to sell it, is this impact fee going to be something that’s like a double tax?”
Another Hulls Cove landowner with a large tract, Chris Maller, said that while there are no goals in the plan that he doesn’t agree with, he could not support the policies envisioned.
“I’m for clean water. I’m for animals being able to move back and forth. I’m for fish in brooks. I’m a tree hugger. But I think we ought to save the people in the process,” Maller said. “We’ve got the national park. It was given by private donation – I think we should be very proud of that. But, my god, we’ve tied up about half the island in conservation.”
According to the open space report, there are currently 15,156 acres, or around 23.5 square miles in Bar Harbor, currently under some form of conservation restriction. That represents more than 50 percent of the town’s total land area of 42.2 square miles.
The conservation commission began pulling together existing information for the open space plan in 2012, and in 2013 acquired a $10,000 grant from the Maine Coastal Program that supported hiring a consultant to help finalize the plan. The town council that year contributed $11,000 to creation of the plan. Representatives from Acadia National Park, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Maine Farmland Trust, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and Friends of Acadia were all involved in the process over the past two years.
Councilor Gary Friedmann, who has long supported creation of the open space plan, said he thought the document should be adopted by councilors in order to provide a direction for future land use changes.
“I think this document is an excellent effort … to try to provide a road map for the kinds of things we should consider,” Friedmann said. “We paid quite a bit of money for this. If we didn’t want an open space plan, we shouldn’t have put the $10,000 into it … if we just thank them for it and end it with that, then there’s nothing. The conservation commission walks away and says, well, that was kind of an interesting but fruitless endeavor.”
Friedmann’s attempts to assemble a majority fell short. His motion to adopt failed by a 5-2 vote. Councilors then voted 7-0 to thank the commission for the plan.
Among the strategies suggested in the plan that sat poorly with councilors were exploration of conservation easements, working with developers and landowners to create contiguous, permanently protected open space for wildlife, keeping roads from open spaces, increasing shoreland setbacks and facilitating conservation of large, undeveloped blocks of land through the use of tax incentive programs.
“This document has a lot of good in it, but I think it was developed in a vacuum,” councilor Clark Stivers said.