BAR HARBOR— A once-popular aquarium off Route 3 is a step closer to being able to expand both its mission and its footprint.
The Mount Desert Oceanarium is requesting a zoning change from shoreland limited residential district to marine research district. The town’s Planning Board voted this month to advance the change to the Town Council for inclusion in the June meeting warrant.
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.
Samuel Coplon, owner of the landscape architecture and planning firm Coplon Associates, who represented the oceanarium at a Planning Board meeting, said he was also involved in the rezoning of the Bio Lab. “At that time, the Lab needed to be rezoned,” he said, “and the marine research district was created to address the very activities occurring there so the Lab could continue as a conforming use.”
The Oceanarium, which was recently sold, has been on the salt marsh near Salsbury Cove in one form or another since the 1960s. It predates the town’s land use ordinance (LUO) and is grandfathered in its use.
The primary problem is that the 19-acre, five-building property is a nonconforming use in its shoreland limited residential district, hampering the chances of revitalizing the property. Due to the nonconforming status, none of the buildings on the property can be rebuilt or expanded. This would also include changes needed to bring it up to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As previously reported, the oceanarium’s new owners plan to convert part of the old lobster hatchery into more exhibition space where a 28-foot whale skeleton or a recently acquired yellow lobster could be shown off.
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.
Board member Joseph Cough was the one vote against the request, stating that he wasn’t sure that the change met the standards in the LUO, especially as it pertains to spot zoning.
The marine research district does not have a specific and finite boundary but was created to zone properties with like uses, said Coplon.
Voters will get a chance to weigh in on the change in June.