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Surf, turf - and strife

Proposed development of pristine coastal parcel near Acadia stirs debate in Maine


By Bina Venkataraman
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2008
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WINTER HARBOR, Maine - More than an hour's drive from the bustle of Bar Harbor and the well-trodden trails of Mount Desert Island lies a secluded part of Acadia National Park. Here, the loudest sound is the surf as it crashes against the craggy granite rocks of the Schoodic Peninsula.

To the north, a 3,200-acre expanse of private land can be seen from the panoramic overlook at Schoodic Head. Blanketed in jack pines and spruce, it is the center of an escalating conflict between real estate developers and the national park.

A group of about 20 investors wants to build an "eco-resort" with two hotels, an 18-hole golf course, and up to 1,000 homes on this 4-mile-long parcel, hugged by two harbors and wedged between the north woods and the Maine coast.

"There is no other piece of land like this, at least not in Maine," said Michael Saxl, a lawyer representing the investors. He noted that their tentative plan, made public in May, incorporates many "green" features, including four environmental education centers, a wildlife corridor that will remain undeveloped, a native tree nursery, and homes that run on solar power and other clean energy in order to have the "lightest footprint possible."

But park officials and conservation groups believe the project would be destructive. They say it would break up wildlife habitat and taint the isolated beauty of the peninsula's parkland, diminishing the wilderness experience for day hikers at Schoodic Head.

Conflicts like this occur outside many other national parks and forests, which have become magnets for developers hoping to capitalize on their scenic beauty. In some instances, houses and resorts mar the very landscapes that attracted people to them. In others, such as Sun Ranch near Yellowstone National Park, development on the outskirts of parks has brought jobs and tax revenue to rural areas without much environmental harm.

"The parks have become increasingly like islands in a sea of development," said Jim Gramman, a consultant for the National Park Service and professor of social science at Texas A&M University. "In a lot of cases, that affects the natural ecological processes that the park was intended to protect."

In Maine, the proposed resort also reflects the expansion of tourism-related development into more remote areas of a state that promotes itself as "Vacationland." Maine's per-capita income is well below the national average, and seasonal resorts promise an expanded tax base and jobs for unskilled workers.

"The town needs some development," said Roger Barto, town manager of Winter Harbor, a quiet fishing village with fewer than 400 year-round residents where most of the resort property lies.

Ron Beard, a professor of community development in the University of Maine's cooperative extension program, said large tracts in the state once held by pulp and paper companies are now being sold as smaller parcels for second-home and resort development, even in a bad housing market.

Maine's natural landscapes are part of the draw. More than 2 million visitors come to Acadia each year, making it the 10th most visited park in the country, though only about 10 percent of them visit the Schoodic Peninsula segment.

The peninsula remains off the beaten path. "When you go out to Schoodic, you feel like you have the whole coast of Maine to yourself," said Darcy Shiber-Knowles of the National Parks Conservation Association.

In this part of the park, visitors see more moose, bobcats, and other wildlife than anywhere else, said park superintendent Sheridan Steele.

David Vail, an economics professor at Bowdoin College, described the area as "one of the last remaining undeveloped pieces of coast" in the country. "There is the danger with development proposals like this that there is a fair amount of greenwashing," he said, referring to when companies brand themselves as environmentally conscious but do not make good on their promises. "But I think there is the potential to have this done right."

Park officials, some scientists, and conservation groups say the size and location of the resort, however, make its ecological footprint much larger than what can be counteracted with its green features.

"With each of these environmental centers, they are destroying habitat," said John Kelly, the park's planner, noting that the Schoodic Education and Research Center in the park already leads research projects and workshops for school groups and park visitors.

Some Winter Harbor residents have started calling the resort "The Great Con." They doubt its viability in the current economy and suspect it may be an elaborate scheme to get conservation groups to buy the land for more than it's worth. The developers, meanwhile, say the land is not for sale.

Unlike most national parks, Acadia has authority under federal law to negotiate land use with neighboring property owners and buy conservation easements from willing sellers. Conservation groups and land trusts have helped the park protect several islands and chunks of coastline near the park.

From the perspective of officials in Winter Harbor, it's a good thing the tract is not for sale.

"I think it would be a disaster for the town if one of the conservancies purchased the land," said Barto, the town manager.

Within the next few months, the resort investment group, Winter Harbor Properties, plans to submit a formal proposal to the Winter Harbor Planning Board, which will probably approve the project if it meets local ordinances.

Kathleen Bell, an environmental economist at the University of Maine, said Maine's towns typically do not have the tools to manage ecological resources well at the local level. Individual towns tend not to consider how to keep a stretch of wildlife habitat intact or how to manage an entire watershed, for example, since these resources cross into other town's boundaries and may not benefit the town exclusively. "Given the close proximity to Acadia, you'd almost want a higher-level environmental protection to kick in," Bell said.

Acadia officials say they have not been allowed to meet the landowners - a family from Italy who bought the land in the 1980s - and have met only three times with their representatives since 2006. And they say they have been kept in the dark about the resort's details.

"This is a big issue because we are talking about impacts to a national park, and a national park belongs to all the American people," said Steele.

Saxl said that the developers' consultants have held dozens of meetings with local groups and officials. Cecelia Ward, a spokeswoman for the investors, said the developers are taking into account the park's and other public comments to "refine" the proposal, but that they do not expect to make major changes.

Officials and development specialists in the state are watching closely.

Maine's economy has been based on fishing and forestry for a long time, said Liz Hertz, director of land-use planning for the state. "And now, it's the value of the beauty of this place that in a lot of ways drives our economy. It's a very fine line to identify a way for towns to grow without completely annihilating those values."

Bina Venkataraman can be reached at bvenkataraman@globe.com.

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