TRENTON — Prospects for building a scenic turnout and floating pier next to the seaplane ramp at the Bar Harbor-Hancock County Airport might hinge on a meeting of town, county, state and federal officials set tentatively for early January.
Plans for the projects remain up in the air after nearly three years of reviews and revisions complicated by regulatory entanglements and jurisdictional jockeying.
The parties with major stakes in the projects include the Trenton Board of Selectmen, Hancock County Commissioners and airport manager, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Developing a small park near the seaplane ramp was first suggested early in 2011 when Trenton officials were looking at how best to use a $1 million federal “transportation enhancement” grant that the MDOT was holding for the town. They ultimately decided to use about $750,000 for a sidewalk along a section of Route 3 and to set aside the rest for a park at the seaplane ramp. To comply with provisions of the grant, the proposed “park” is being called a “scenic turnout.”
The MDOT hired a firm to design the turnout, which was to include terraced landscaping, picnic tables under a canopy, a privy-type restroom and even a small amphitheater.
“We wanted a place where our residents, as well as visitors, could go and maybe have a picnic or family gathering and have a nice view right by the water,” said Trenton selectman Sue Starr, the town official who has been most closely involved with the project.
“Once the scenic turnout was planned, we thought we really would like to have a floating pier at the seaplane ramp,” Starr said. “We thought the turnout and pier would enhance each other.”
The selectmen created a committee to plan the pier and apply for grants to fund it. The committee also received pledges of financial support from area businesses and organizations.
The estimated cost of the pier project is around $100,000.
In July 2013, the Hancock County Commissioners awarded Trenton a $20,000 “community benefits” grant for the pier project.
In January 2014, the MDOT informed the town that its request for a $44,000 Small Harbor Improvement Program grant for the project had been approved, although Starr said the town still has not received written confirmation of that.
The seaplane ramp and adjacent land are owned by the county.
In October 2013, the county commissioners and the Trenton selectmen signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that spelled out their respective responsibilities regarding the scenic turnout and pier. Since then, however, plans for the projects have run into obstacles.
The FAA said the proposed scenic turnout would have to be moved from the north side of the seaplane ramp to the south side so that people would not have to walk across the ramp to access the floating pier.
“They pictured people wandering back and forth across the ramp, which they said would create a hazard for the pedestrians as well as for the seaplanes,” Starr said.
There are no seaplanes that regularly use the ramp.
Relocating the scenic turnout means it has to be redesigned at a cost of $20,000. The Trenton selectmen have agreed to split that cost with the MDOT.
The FAA has raised other objections.
“The MOU (between the county and town) includes several items that appear to be in conflict with Hancock County’s federal obligations,” Bryon Rakoff, deputy manager of the FAA’s airport division, said in a Dec. 19, 2013 letter to airport manager Brad Madeira.
He said the concerns include plans to use the scenic turnout and pier for non-aeronautical purposes and for the county to issue Trenton a license to oversee and maintain these “enhancements” for at least 20 years.
“By granting a 20-year license for a non-aeronautical use, the airport is altering the property’s use,” Rakoff said in his letter to Madeira.
He reminded Madeira that the airport’s “primary obligation is to meet the aeronautical needs of its users,” and he cautioned the county against entering into any agreement that is contrary to its federal obligations.
Rakoff said the county could request that the FAA release the piece of land in question from its current “aeronautical use obligation” and, thus, from having to adhere to FAA regulations. But that process would cost an estimated $25,000, and there is no guarantee the FAA would grant the release.
In light of the FAA’s objections to various parts of the agreement between the Hancock County and Trenton, the county commissioners voted Jan. 7, 2014, to rescind their approval of the MOU. Commission chairman Percy Brown expressed concern that the MOU, as written, would jeopardize some of the airport’s federal funding.
The commissioners said they still supported the scenic turnout and pier projects and would consider a revised MOU.
On July 8, Madeira said in an email to Nate Benoit, multimodal assistant program manager for the MDOT, “I am confident that Sue Starr and I can come up with something that will work for both the county and the town.”
But Starr said Madeira did not consult her before drafting a new MOU and submitting it to MDOT and FAA officials for their review in mid-August.
When she and the other Trenton selectmen saw the proposed MOU a month later, they were not pleased.
The original MOU stated that both the county and town were in favor of improving public use of the area around the seaplane ramp for “aviation, commerce, recreation and emergency access and egress” at the airport. According to the proposed new MOU, the only purpose of the projects would be “increased aeronautical use.”
Under the old MOU, the town of Trenton would have been responsible for establishing and enforcing rules relative to the pier, maintaining the structures and overseeing their use, and collecting usage fees if needed to offset operating and upkeep expenses. Use of the floating pier would have been governed by Trenton’s harbor management ordinance, and the town’s parks and recreation committee would have assumed responsibility for “oversight and management of the airport scenic turnout amenities.”
Madeira’s draft MOU would have the county establish and enforce all rules related to the proposed facilities at the seaplane ramp. Trenton’s role would be to pay for construction of the facilities and “all of the future maintenance needs.”
Starr said that under the proposed MOU, “All the authority would be held by the airport and the county. There is nothing that Trenton would be allowed to do except pay money.”
Trenton selectmen chairman Fred Ehrlenbach sent a letter to the county commissioners on Oct. 14 expressing the board’s “extreme disappointment” with the draft MOU.
“This is far from the collaborative effort first envisioned between the county and Trenton,” he said. “Unless there is significant alteration to insure the interests of Trenton, (the MOU) will not be adopted.”
The county commissioners have not officially responded, but they have drafted a letter saying, “The terms of the MOU were written in order to avoid a costly land release process with the FAA.”
In their draft letter to the Trenton selectmen, the commissioners added that they “are not willing to take any actions that would jeopardize our Federal Airport Improvement funds. We regret that the town of Trenton is unsatisfied with the terms of the draft MOU; however, we are not able to negotiate beyond federally imposed restraints.”
The commissioners said they still support the project provided it is “in accordance with our federal obligations.”
Starr said the county commissioners are essentially telling Trenton that “We really want this to happen for you, but go pound sand.”
Madeira said last Friday that at the request of the county commissioners, he has asked Tom Vick, compliance and land use specialist with the FAA’s airports division in New England, if he can meet in early January with officials of the county, the town of Trenton and MDOT.
Asked if he thought such a meeting could result in the scenic turnout and floating pier projects moving forward, Madeira said, “That’s what we’re hoping for.”