MOUNT DESERT — Town officials will try to help Acadia National Park, the Aid Society of Otter Creek and a group of the village’s residents reach an “understanding” about the ownership and use of land around the small fish house that the Aid Society owns on Otter Creek Cove.
At issue is ownership of the strip of land between the fish house and the low water mark and whether Otter Creek fishermen can build a wharf over that property.
Otter Creek residents Steve Smith and others claim that when the fish house was deeded to the Aid Society by a private land owner in 1983, the gift included the adjacent wharf and boat slip. But Acadia officials say that all of the property outside the footprint of the fish house belongs to the park. And John Macauley, chairman of the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen and president of the Aid Society, said that, although the wharf is shown on the survey that was done in connection with the deed transfer, it is not mentioned in the deed itself.
At the invitation of selectmen, three Acadia officials and members of the Otter Creek community attended the selectmen’s meeting Monday night to discuss the issue.
Everyone agrees that a wharf has been on the site for generations, going back to when the fish house and all of the property around it were privately owned. There also is general agreement that the old wharf had become dilapidated and unsafe when Acadia tore it down in 2009.
“The park service has to take care of areas that are hazards, so we removed it,” Chief Ranger Stuart West said at the selectmen’s meeting. “It was in a total state of disrepair.”
Macauley said Smith is in the process of rebuilding the wharf. But the park service maintains that is not allowed.
“Mr. Smith’s records and our records disagree on a number of things, including ownership of the land,” Acadia’s Deputy Superintendent Mike Madell said. “It’s our contention that it is federal property beyond the footprint [of the fish house], so there is no basis for legally permitting a rebuild of [the wharf].”
Macauley noted that under a legal principle established in colonial times, ownership of shorefront property extends to the mean low water mark. Given that, he said, one of the questions that need to be answered in regard to the fish house wharf is, “What are the rights of the property owner to construct anything between the mean high water mark and mean low water mark?”
Both Macauley and Selectmen Brian Reilly noted that the wharf and boat slip are not directly in front of the fish house, but are set off slightly to one side. Therefore, they said, the Aid Society might not be able to legally rebuild the wharf in its original location, even if it has ownership rights to the low water mark.
“The wharf is not part of your ownership, in my opinion,” Reilly told Smith. “Looking at the survey, the wharf is on [park service] property.”
Speaking as president of the Aid Society, Macauley said the organization “wants to do the right thing; we want to know what’s legally correct.”
Selectman Dennis Shubert asked Macauley if the Aid Society is prepared to litigate the dispute with Acadia.
“No,” Macauley responded. “I can’t imagine that we are going to want to take this to court.”
Over the years, Smith and other Otter Creek residents have complained about what they see as the park’s dismissive attitude toward some of their concerns. And Shubert said at a previous selectmen’s meeting that he didn’t think the park has always treated the Otter Creek community with the consideration and respect it deserves. The mistrust and resentment of the park service among some in Otter Creek seem to have intensified the dispute over the fish house wharf.
Macauley, Shubert and others acknowledged that there are other areas of contention between the park and the community that need to be addressed, but they said the immediate focus should be on resolving the fish house issue.
Madell suggested the parties involved should try to work out a memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding ownership, access to and use of the property around the fish house.
“The history and traditions of Otter Creek cannot be denied,” he said. “We [at the park] would like to see that more thoroughly interpreted and provide people with more access to the area of the fish shack for educational purposes, for recreational purposes, etcetera.
“I envision an MOU that would talk about those things: How do we best provide access? How can we best tell people about the area? What are our shared visions, our shared goals?”
But Smith strongly objected to the idea of using the fish house area for education and recreation.
“It’s not about tourism and going down there and having a picnic,” he said. “It’s a fishermen’s landing. It’s for fishing-related activities, nothing else. It’s not for goody-goody all this other stuff.”
But Shubert praised the deputy superintendent’s comments and his suggestion for working together to craft an agreement.
“I couldn’t imagine a better statement from the park service,” he said. “That’s exactly what I was looking for. There are some mutual needs and obviously some conflict points. I suspect we can work out a lot of this.”
No action was taken, but there was informal agreement that representatives of the park, the Aid Society and the town should get together to try to find common ground.
“Forget about who’s right and who’s wrong,” Reilly said. “Let’s come up with something we can all live with.”