Members of Bar Harbor’s Conservation Commission met with the Town Council last week to review the status of the town’s open space plan. Drafted in 2014, the plan made sweeping recommendations about public acquisition of more open space for a variety of purposes.
As pointed out at the meeting last week, more than 56 percent of the land area of the town already is protected in some way. That includes some 15,000 acres in Acadia National Park plus thousands more in conservation easements or held in fee simple by nonprofit institutions or charitable trusts.
Still, the actual amount is even higher still. The coverage listed in the 2014 study does not include thousands more acres zoned for resource or shoreland protection by local regulations. With development prohibited on that land, it, too, is permanently protected open space.
In reality, Bar Harbor, much like the other municipalities on Mount Desert Island, already has more open space than nearly any other small town in Maine. While state, regional or national groups do not have recommended averages for small communities, if there were, it would not be in excess of 50 percent.
Of primary concern to Bar Harbor’s handful of large landowners is the overall tone of the 2014 plan. The map shows that nearly every inch of land in town lies in major watersheds worthy of protection. Landowners worry that the watershed provision alone could be used to justify additional growth restrictions on their properties. Fortunately, officials at last week’s meeting stressed that the open space plan was a jumping-off place for discussion, not a hard-and-fast blueprint for future regulation and restrictions.
Commission members pledged to work with landowners to talk about existing and potential land uses in the hopes of finding mutually agreeable solutions that balance the flexibility of permitted uses and protection.
Unlike purchasing property outright for open space protection, merely imposing strict zoning or construction regulations would have the same negative effect without the requirement to compensate landowners for their loss. And regardless of what method is used for acquisition, each and every instance reduces the amount of property subject to local property taxes, which, through simple math, increases the share of local expenses that must be shouldered by the remaining private landowners.
Just about everyone has a favorite roadside view or beautiful wild spot they would like to see protected forever. The situation becomes complicated when the land isn’t owned by the public or by someone willing to surrender their interests in it. At some point, the town has just as vital an interest in seeing the community’s tax base remain viable as it does in making sure its natural character and beauty are preserved. Striking that balance requires a realistic assessment of how to accomplish each of those worthy goals and willingness to compromise on the part of those who hold great passion about these issues.