BAR HARBOR — New owners of a once-popular aquarium off Route 3 hope to expand on the location’s mission to bring ocean education to Mount Desert Island, but they will have to get a zoning amendment through town meeting first to make any significant changes.
The Mount Desert Oceanarium, which recently sold to new owners, has been on the salt marsh near Salsbury Cove in one form or another since the 1960s. The problem is the 19-acre, 5-building property is a nonconforming use in its shoreland limited residential district, hampering the chances of revitalizing the oceanarium.
“It does severely hamstring us,” said Jeff Cumming, the new executive director.
Even simple changes such as improving accessibility and bringing structures up to code could run into issues if they extend past the current footprint. The owners are now asking the town to consider changing the zoning of the area to marine research.
“We’re trying to apply to change the zone just for our property,” Cumming said. “It would be very difficult to operate successfully and make the improvements to the business and operations in the current zoning.”
Samuel Coplon, who represented the oceanarium at a Planning Board meeting late last month, said the zoning change would align with the historic use of the property and be similar to a change made in the 1990s for the MDI Biological Laboratory. It would also line up with the town’s comprehensive plan, he contended.
A change of the district would have to pass at town meeting, meaning any potential amendments wouldn’t happen until June at the earliest.
Without the zoning change, the oceanarium could either rebuild or renovate under the same footprint or ask to keep the same footprint and move to another spot on the property.
Both would be tall tasks because of the state of the buildings and how hemmed in they are with the surrounding marsh, said Angela Chamberlain, the town’s code enforcement officer.
“They can continue operating as they are, but they can’t do any expansions,” she said. “Without an amendment that gets them to a conforming use, they can’t do a lot with the buildings.”
The oceanarium has been working with an architect to look at reviving the property and Cumming planned to open on June 1 under the existing footprint until the zoning issue could be worked out.
“We’ll be doing the best job that we can to offer a quality product in those constraints,” he said. “Any larger improvements or renovations have to wait.”
The oceanarium does plan to convert part of the old lobster hatchery into more exhibition space, where it could show off a 28-foot whale skeleton or a recently acquired yellow lobster.
The nonprofit is also thinking of expanding its educational offerings – possibly wading into summer camps and school programs – as well as adding kayak and paddle boarding in the adjacent salt marsh.
“We’re just hopeful that people will see the oceanarium as an asset to the community,” Cumming said.
The Planning Board deemed the application complete, and a public hearing was scheduled for Dec. 1.