Marsh boardwalk draws opposition

MOUNT DESERT — Developer Shep Harris’s plan to build a boardwalk over a marsh to Echo Lake has drawn strong opposition from a number of residents of the area.

Harris wants to construct the 150-foot boardwalk across a lot owned by his son, Parker, so that residents of his Lakeside II and III subdivisions can carry kayaks and canoes to the lake. Much of the boardwalk would cross marshland.

Members of the Mount Desert Planning Board said at their March 9 meeting that they need more specifics about the project before ruling that Harris’s application for a conditional use permit is complete. The board is scheduled to meet April 20 to again consider the completeness of the application and to hear comments from the public about the project.

Members of the Echo Lake Owners Association and Echo Lake Road Association previously have expressed opposition.

In a letter to the Planning Board last July, representatives of the 18 families that belong to the two associations said their objections were based on environmental, aesthetic and safety considerations. They wrote that the proposed boardwalk would have a negative impact on “the hydrological performance of the wetlands” and “degrade wildlife habitat.”

They also asserted that people crossing or parking along Echo Lake Road would create a safety hazard.

As for the boardwalk’s visual impact, representatives of the residents’ associations wrote that it would cross a wetland that has “inherent aesthetic value for both residents and visitors.”

They claim the Maine Department of Environmental Projection (DEP) did not adequately consider all relevant factors when it issued a permit for the project last summer. The DEP determined that the boardwalk would “not unreasonably interfere with the existing scenic, aesthetic, recreational or navigational uses” of Echo Lake and would have no significant impact on plant or animal life.

Since filing his initial application with the town last June, Harris has revised his plan for the boardwalk, altering the path it would take through the marsh to a finger of open water near the north end of Echo Lake.

Jules Opton-Himmel, a land use consultant hired by Harris, said the location of the boardwalk was changed partly to eliminate concerns about its proximity to Denning Brook.

The boardwalk would be elevated about three feet above the marsh. At the end of the boardwalk would be a 12-by-12-foot platform where canoes and kayaks could be stored. From there, wooden floats or aluminum platforms, which would only be in place during the summer, would extend a short distance into the lake.

The total length of the permanent and temporary structures would be about 195 feet.

Opton-Himmel told the Planning Board that because the proposed route of the boardwalk through the marsh has been changed, he has submitted a revised permit application to the Maine DEP.

“They said they anticipated that if it was the same design, they saw no issue, and that the previous permit would likely apply to the new location,” he said.

As for the opposition expressed by nearby residents, Opton-Himmel said, “The applicant understands that change is difficult, and a lot of animosity exists in the neighborhood toward the applicant. But that does not change the fact that the applicant has legal rights, and that these laws apply equally to all.”

Harris told the Planning Board in a letter accompanying his initial application for a conditional use permit last June that the boardwalk was necessary because of a mistake made nearly 30 years ago by his attorney at the time.

Harris created his first Echo Lake development, called Lakeside I, in the late 1980s.

“The original intention was to have lake access be for the entire Lakeside area, including the properties now owned by my family,” he wrote. “Due to an oversight by a previous attorney of mine, only the six Lakeside I lots were granted approval to access the lake across the easement on [abutting] property.”

In 1995, Harris divided another piece of land into the three-lot Lakeside II subdivision, and gave one lot to each of his children. In 2003, he began creating four additional lots, which he also deeded to his children.

Harris said the idea of a boardwalk emerged as a way to provide access to Echo Lake “for the Lakeside II and III properties not allowed to use the Lakeside I easement.”

Boardwalk opponents say Harris wants the boardwalk because he thinks it will help him and his family sell some of the lots.

“He … has priced them aggressively. They have not moved,” members of the two residents associations wrote in their July 20 letter to the Planning Board.

“Faced with commercial frustration, the alternative solution of Mr. Harris is the boardwalk through the wetlands … so that he can represent all his lots as having ‘lake access.’”

The neighboring property owners cited a letter they say Harris wrote to Opton-Himmel and another person involved in the project in February 2015.

“The consensus among the ‘real estate community’ is that not having water access diminishes the value by about 20 percent,” he wrote. “I would obviously rather have that value than not.”

He said a boardwalk was the only practical way to provide access to Echo Lake for residents of Lakeside II and III.

“As far as I can tell, nobody has a real need to access the lake, but it sure is nice if you own property adjacent to a lake,” Harris wrote.

He said in his letter to the Planning Board last June that the boardwalk would be designed as “a place of reflection and perhaps a place to have a community canoe or kayak.”

Harris said his family lived on a nearby body of water, Little Echo Lake, from 1996 to 2008. He now lives in San Francisco.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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