FREEPORT, Maine — Down a quiet, narrow dirt path off Flying Point Road, behind a thin wall of trees, hides a carefully constructed, massive pile of junk.
At least it used to be junk. Now it’s Harold Arndt’s dream boat, a 113-foot-long, steel, two-masted schooner called Island Rover, built completely of recycled materials.
“It’ll have all the comforts of home, all previously owned,” Arndt said as he walked through the 75 percent completed boat last week, pointing out where the full-size kitchen, sleeping quarters, research laboratory and dining hall (or “people’s room”) will be when it’s all finished.
Arndt, president of the Island Rover Foundation, a nonprofit organization that oversees the construction and eventual operation of the schooner, knows the boat by heart. He sees all the yet-to-be built amenities where others only see dimly lit steel ribs curving up the insides of the massive steel hull.
But now, just short of the 20th anniversary of the start of the project, Arndt may be forced to make a decision that puts the ship’s future at risk.
On Aug. 7, the Town Council will vote on a consent agreement with the foundation that will determine whether Arndt and his team will be able to continue working on the boat at its current location.
Arndt started building the boat as a private project in the early 1990s, but said he decided to start a foundation in 2000 to help fund the project and use it as an educational platform. The shift to nonprofit status caused the construction to go out of compliance with zoning laws in the residential neighborhood.
Under the law, the foundation, technically a corporation, cannot build a boat in that neighborhood. The agreement grants the foundation the ability to bypass those laws with the stipulation that the project be completed within a specific time frame.
The initial agreement, signed in 2005, expired two years ago. The council granted an extension in 2010, until January 2013.
Although the current agreement does not expire until the beginning of next year, Arndt went to the council on July 10 to ask for more time. He hoped to benefit from Town Manager Dale Olmstead’s history with the project, rather than trying to re-educate a new town manager who will succeed Olmstead later this year, he said.
At the meeting, the council initially planned to vote on the agreement, but decided to wait until next month after councilors raised concerns about the project, mainly its ability to be completed in the near future.
“The activity he’s doing is not authorized in his zone,” council Chairman Jim Cassida said. “The activity can’t continue forever. He’s going to have to come into compliance” when the consent agreement eventually expires.
Arndt, 69, said the project was making steady progress until 2008, when the economy collapsed. Since then, the private donations the foundation relies on exclusively have dropped off, delaying the work.
“Since 2008, we’ve been at the point of needing extensive funds,” he said. “We’ve come this far with minimal funding. The future of the project all depends on how we fare the next couple of years.”
Arndt projects the foundation will need another $150,000 to $250,000 to finish the boat or move it. The majority of the donations the foundation has received have been in-kind, such as, steel, wiring and wood for construction support.
Arndt hopes to get a five-year extension to allow him time to get complete the boat.
“I want to be retired by then and out sailing,” he said.
On Aug. 2 it will be 20 years since Arndt, along with a handful of welders, students and volunteers, first began the project in 1992. They have used steel, copper, wood and whatever else industrial “garbage” they could get their hands on.
The recycled and reused nature of the project requires Arndt to collect material for the boat when he can, not necessarily when he needs it. This has led to a build-up of various materials waiting to be installed, something a few neighbors have complained about, Councilor Jim Hendricks said.
“I have heard from at least one neighbor, who was generally in favor of the project, but was worried about health and safety hazards, and if the project will ever be finished,” Hendricks said.
At its July 10 meeting, the council laid out several conditions for Arndt to fulfill before the next council meeting. They included clearing overhanging brush along the dirt road that provides access to the boat for the Fire Department, and allowing a Department of Environmental Protection employee to check the property for hazardous waste. The council also wanted to have time to gauge neighborhood support for the project.
Hendricks said he is generally in favor of the project and its mission.
“For me, as long as there is no hazardous waste and there’s a neighborhood consensus in favor of the project, I don’t disapprove,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is going be hearing public comments from neighbors” at the next meeting.
Arndt, who worked for the majority of his 13 years at Bath Iron Works as the waste management program administrator, said he is confident he’ll be able to meet the conditions and that he’ll have his neighborhood’s support. He also said he plans to gather signatures and letters in support of his project from the community before the next council meeting.
In addition to setting an example by building a boat out of recycled materials, the foundation also uses the boat as an educational platform, Arndt said. Throughout the years, the foundation has used the project to employ interns, make public presentations about sustainability in Maine, and host various environmentally centered school programs for elementary and adult students.
The Island Rover Foundation is about much more than building a boat, Arndt said; it’s part of what he called a “new movement.”
“The American Dream is not sustainable,” he said. “We, as a society, need to start thinking about our impact on a global scale, and that’s part of the mission of Island Rover.”
Arndt said he hopes to demonstrate with the foundation what can be built from materials previously owned and used by industry, or marked as surplus.
Examples of reused materials are evident all over the 83-foot deck of the boat, which has mixed-and-matched doors, some from Navy surplus, others from personal donations.
“There’s a story behind every piece on this boat, some I remember and some I could have never known,” Arndt said. “That’s one of the great things about using recycled materials. Everything has a story.”