PORTLAND — The four island towns on Mount Desert Island will each receive $5,000 for community education on the impacts of coastal flooding and sea level rise, pending approval of a grant application to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) of Portland applied for the $100,000 grant earlier this month, with the support of the island towns.
Representatives of the local organization A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) contacted town managers, councilors, and selectmen in the town of Mount Desert, Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Tremont, to encourage them to send letters in support of the application.
“The EPA likes to see proof of community involvement,” ACTT member Ken Coburn told Bar Harbor Town Councilors at a Jan. 7 meeting, when asking them to agree to send a letter of support.
The grant, if awarded, will fund a project to educate the public on “the complex impacts of coastal flooding [and] sea level rise,” according to ACTT member Gary Friedmann. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute will conduct a study to create models of what sea level rise will look like on MDI. Matching funds are not required.
The institute was interested in doing the study on Mount Desert Island “because our four towns rely on interconnected infrastructure,” wrote Friedmann in a Dec. 20 memo to Town Manager Cornell Knight.
Though all four towns sent letters of support for the grant, the vote was split in Bar Harbor and Tremont. In the other two towns, support was uncontested.
At their Jan. 6 meeting, Mount Desert selectmen voted unanimously and with little discussion in favor of sending a letter to support the grant application. In Southwest Harbor, Justin VanDongen sent a letter after taking “an informal poll” to make sure selectmen were in favor, by calling them individually. VanDongen said due to the grant deadline, “we didn’t have time for a vote.”
Tremont selectmen voted 3-2 in favor of sending a letter of support, following a discussion of whether a study on coastal flooding and sea level rise would raise insurance rates or restrict shoreland development.
“I don’t want to put my support beside anything that could affect the local economy,” said Selectman Mike Mansolilli. “Once you have data like this it can be used for different things. The Planning Board could take it and say we’re going to zone this zone into a coastal flood zone, for example.”
As for Tremont residents with homes and businesses on the waterfront, Mansolilli said, “I’m sure there some impact from water and sea level rise, but they’ve always been able to deal with it.”
Selectman Kevin Buck pointed out that the town already has flood maps.
Chairman Jamie Thurlow said, “We definitely don’t want to see any negative impacts come out of anything, that’s for sure.
I think, at this point it looks like at this point it’s just education, but I do agree we have to be very cautious when we move forward what the impacts could be when we come out of it.”
In Bar Harbor, Town Councilors voted 5-1-1 in favor of a letter of support for the grant. Since the letter had already been signed by Chairman Jeff Dobbs and sent the previous day to meet deadline, Councilors would have rescinded the letter if the vote did not pass.
Friedmann, who in addition to serving on ACTT also serves on Town Council in Bar Harbor, recused himself from the discussion and vote. Councilor Erin Cough asked if Friedmann’s recusal was also “for acting as a board member and a Councilor going forward” in all discussions pertaining to the grant.
Town Manager Cornell Knight said, “I would say he has a conflict and should recuse himself from that” going forward.
Cough also asked if the Town of Bar Harbor would be held accountable to pay back the $5,000 received if the goals of the grant were not met.
Coburn said Bar Harbor and the other three towns were not applying for the grant themselves; they were just signing letters of support for the grant. The purpose, Coburn said, “is to have some money come back to Maine and Bar Harbor… rather than risk more money for the town.”