MOUNT DESERT — Voters at the May 2 town meeting will decide whether to authorize the Board of Selectmen to support the Aid Society of Otter Creek’s request that Acadia National Park “honor its original foundation principles.”
Otter Creek resident Steve Smith circulated a petition to place the question on the town meeting warrant and collected the signatures of the required number of 120 registered voters. Among the signers were Town Manager Durlin Lunt, Board of Selectman Chairman John Macauley, who also is president of the Aid Society of Otter Creek, and Selectman Matt Hart.
In the petition, Smith described Acadia’s “foundation principles” as those “intended by the incorporators of the 1903 formation of the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations: the power ‘to acquire, hold, maintain and improve for free public use lands in Hancock County which by reason of scenic beauty, historical interest, sanitary advantage or for other reasons my be available for the purpose.’”
The Trustees of Public Reservations, which actually was incorporated in 1901, was spearheaded by Charles Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard University and a summer resident of Mount Desert Island. He and others were concerned about the increase in private land ownership and wanted to preserve as much of the island as they could for public enjoyment.
Over the next several years, the Trustees accepted donations of land on Mount Desert Island, and in 1916, they donated more than 5,000 acres to the federal government. That gift formed the core of Sieur de Monts National Monument, which became Lafayette National Park in 1919. The name was changed to Acadia National Park in 1929.
Smith, who circulated the petition, has had a number of disputes with Acadia over the years. For example, he and park officials disagree over ownership of a strip of land between a small fish house on Otter Creek Cove, which is owned by the Aid Society, and whether fishermen can build a replacement wharf over that land. He and other Otter Creek residents claim that the Aid Society’s property includes the adjacent wharf and boat slip. But park officials maintain that all of the property outside the footprint of the fish house belongs to the park.
Macauley said that dispute is what prompted Smith, who was not at the selectmen’s meeting on Monday, to circulate the petition.
“This is about the long-standing contention that the fish house lots are poorly deeded and unclear as to who has historical, cultural ownership of the use of those parcels and what that use entails,” Macauley said.
According to the town charter, the selectmen must place a valid citizen petition on the town meeting warrant unless they find it to be “moot, illegal or impossible.”
Mount Desert resident Jim Bright said selectmen should find the petition moot and refuse to include it on the warrant. But Lunt disagreed.
“Unless it’s very clear it would cause harm to the town, I think a citizen’s petition should be entertained and discussed and give the citizens of the community the ability to vote for it or against it,” he said. “It does more damage not to allow the citizens’ voices to be heard than it does to put it on [the warrant].”
The selectmen noted that the petition would “authorize” them to support the Aid Society’s request to Acadia but wouldn’t “require” them to do anything. They voted unanimously to place the petition on the town meeting warrant but made no recommendation on whether it ought to pass.