MOUNT DESERT — Someone has been living illegally in the small fish shack on Otter Cove, according to Code Enforcement Officer Kim Keene. She has ordered the Otter Creek Aid Society, which owns the building, to have it vacated immediately.
“I have determined that the existing structure is in violation [of the Uniform Plumbing Code] and is unsanitary, hazardous and unsafe for human habitation,” she said in a letter to Aid Society President John Macauley, who also is chairman of the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen.
“There is no internal plumbing, water, sewer or subsurface wastewater system currently servicing the building.”
She added that, with the use of the “communal fish shack” as a dwelling unit, it is required to have “features necessary to minimize danger to life from the effects of fire.” She said those features include one primary and one secondary means of escape, a code-compliant stairway to the second floor and smoke detection.
Keene told Macauley he might want to ask the fire chief to inspect the building.
“I am sure he will see some immediate fire hazard concerns with the existing cook-top wood stove, two-burner propane stove and propane tank and open flame candles directly adjacent to the propane stove and propane tank,” she said in the letter.
She said the Aid Society’s failure to comply with her order could lead to legal action and penalties of $100 to $2,500 for each day the violation continues.
The 22-by-22-foot fish shack on the western shore of Otter Cove sits on a lot that is exactly the same size. Anyone who steps even a foot away from the building in any direction is on Acadia National Park property.
Macauley said he asked Keene to inspect the building after he received a notice from the park that it appeared that someone had taken up residence.
After receiving Keene’s notice of violation, dated Sept. 6, Macauley said he was taking steps to secure the fish shack to prevent anyone from living there.
“We’re putting a lock on it; we have to wrap it in tape that says ‘no trespassing,’” he said. “We have to do some sort of good faith effort to secure the premises. Otherwise, the liability is enormous for us.”
When Keene inspected the building Sept. 5, she took photographs of the items that she said indicate someone has been living there.
“There’s a bed up in the loft area and a bureau with a bunch of clothing, cans of food, a Coleman cook stove and I think a mini-refrigerator,” she said.
There is one small solar panel on the front of the building, but Keene said she didn’t think it could produce enough electricity for lighting.
“I believe he’s been using candles,” she said of whoever has been living there.
She said she saw nothing that indicated how long the building has been occupied.
As for what happens to the clothing and other personal items that Keene found, Macauley said, “When we identify who it belongs to, I think we’ll give them a certain amount of time to move it out. That whole building needs to be cleaned out.”
Macauley said the future of the fish shack likely will be discussed at the Aid Society’s meeting next Wednesday, Sept. 26.
He said that, to his knowledge, only about three people have been using the building, which he said is supposed to be only “for the storage of bait and supplies for fishing-related activities.”
He said there used to be a number of fish shacks around Otter Cove, but now there is only one.
“They were never intended to be structures to live in,” he said. “A lot of them had a table and some chairs inside so (the fishermen) could go in and get out of the weather.”
Land access to the fish house is by a path down a steep slope from the Park Loop Road. A stout rope tied to trees serves as a makeshift handrail. At the top of the path, there is room for three cars to park on the shoulder of the road.
A contentious history
This isn’t the first time the fish house has been the object of contention.
Otter Creek resident Steve Smith and a few others have long claimed that when the fish shack 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 maintain that all of the property outside the footprint of the house belongs to the park. And Macauley has 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.
In 2009, the park removed a portion of the wharf after determining that it was dilapidated and unsafe. Smith rebuilt it, but the park said that was 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 at a meeting of the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen in August 2016.
“It’s our contention that it is federal property beyond the footprint [of the fish shack], so there is no basis for legally permitting a rebuild of (the wharf).”
Smith has had a number of disputes with Acadia over the years. He and some other Otter Creek residents have complained that, with the park now owning all of the land around the village, access to the water for traditional activities has essentially been cut off.
But park officials say that those who claim the fish shack is important to them continue to cross legal boundaries in accessing and using it.
“We’re constantly getting letters from the Department of the Interior about infractions, from an illegal rope swing to boats pulled up on park land,” Macauley said. “It’s gotten to the point that it’s a liability we can’t assume.”