Open to possibilities

The Bar Harbor Conservation Commission is to be congratulated for the extraordinarily thorough job its members did in crafting an open space plan. The document provides a thorough accounting of the tremendous affection the people of the town hold for the area’s unique and irreplaceable landscapes.

While some were disappointed that the town council did not take immediate action upon receiving the report, the lack of movement on their part reflects the fact that, after the data collection and summarizing phase has ended, the job of determining what steps, if any, should be taken next is an entirely political exercise.

The difficulty in creating demand for additional land protection, and resultant political pressure needed to effect action, lies in the fact that, unlike some Maine coastal communities, say Freeport or Falmouth, Bar Harbor already has vast tracts of protected land. Development is barred here because so much land already is part of Acadia National Park or is preserved through conservation easements held by organizations like the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Depending on the parameters one chooses for counting such land, the amount of protected land in Bar Harbor is between 40 and 50 percent of all property, far in excess of recommendations by nearly every major association of planners.

While much of that land already is open to robust recreational use, more than a billion dollars of the town’s open space now on the books is not subject to taxation. Suggesting that public dollars be used to take even more out of taxation may be a difficult sell at any town meeting.

While there is no immediate need for bold action, there are plenty of facts and research numbers in the plan that should be used to guide future policy and inform municipal decisions.

In calling for an open space plan, the town’s comprehensive plan set a goal of drafting a proposal “to encourage voluntary protection” of additional lands. Naturally, those passionate about the subject will tend to push the boundary of what can be considered voluntary, if not by outright rule, then by designation of wide categories of property, such as everything in a watershed, as worthy of protection.

Nearly every piece of land in any town is located inside some kind of a watershed, so the open space report maps identify the entire town’s land as worthy of protection. That should give any property owner or public official pause.

Suggestions for more rigorous laws concerning viewshed protection raise questions about where a landowner’s right to do what they wish with their property ends, and where the public’s right to impose currently perceived aesthetic standards begins.

An exhaustive list of people were consulted on the open space plan. But the failure to consult several key large landowners, who would be affected directly by many of its provisions, was an unfortunate oversight.

That the town council did not direct any specific action upon accepting the report earlier this month may have disappointed its authors. But that does not diminish the report’s impact. A new planner is now on the job. Many of the report’s common sense recommendations can easily – and with minimal political push-back – be incorporated into future ordinances.

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