CHEBEAGUE ISLAND, Maine — A yearlong dispute between the town and the owners of Hope Island has been settled, but the town is casting a watchful eye on the follow-up.
In late July, Chebeague Island reached a $100,000 settlement with John and Phyllis Cacoulidis, the owners of the 89-acre island that falls within Chebeague’s borders. The settlement finds that the couple violated shoreline protections during several recent construction projects that were not approved or granted permits by the town.
As part of the settlement, the town waived all but $23,000 in penalties, but reserves the right to collect the additional $77,000 if the property owners fail to comply with the terms.
The town is aware of five violations on Hope Island, which include encroachments within shoreland protection zones.
It all began last year when Code Enforcement Officer Ron Tozier received a tip from local fishermen that construction was taking place on Hope Island, within 75 feet of the high tide line. Soon afterward, Tozier and representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and National Resource Protection Act traveled by boat to the private island, which lies about a half mile from the southeastern tip of Chebeague.
The inspectors tied up at the Hope Island dock, but they “were refused admittance,” Tozier recalled.
Weeks later, the three men were finally allowed to inspect the island and they discovered four of the violations:
• On the south side of the island, the owners had constructed a path within 75 feet of the shore.
• Rip-rap walls were erected without permits or review by the town Planning Board.
• New construction on the southwestern portion of the island had commenced without a permit or board approval, and within 75 feet of the shore.
• A concrete pad for a pavilion was poured within the shoreline zone without necessary permits and approval.
The state’s Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act requires “municipalities to adopt, administer, and enforce local ordinances that regulate land use activities in the shoreland zone. The shoreland zone is comprised of all land areas within 250 feet, horizontal distance,” of the high-tide line, according to the state website.
Tozier said his initial approach was to work with the property owners, rather than throw the book at them. In June 2012, Tozier sent two letters to the Cacoulidises that detailed the violations and offered suggestions on how to restore sensitive shoreline areas to their previous state and seek after-the-fact approval for some of the work.
But the approach wasn’t effective, Tozier said. The owners didn’t comply.
In November 2012, Tozier hit his boiling point when he discovered additional excavation taking place on Hope Island within the shoreline zone.
“I was very, very disappointed,” he said.
The town’s case was first presented in court in April 2013. A settlement was reached on July 25, said Frank Chowdry, the Cacoulidis’ attorney.
“We’ve put this chapter — these differences of opinion — behind us and we’re trying to work in good faith to have these issues resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” Chowdry said on behalf of his clients.
However, the town alleges that the terms of the settlement, which outline a schedule for payment and other actions, were violated almost immediately, Town Administrator Eric Dyer said. The town’s Board of Selectmen held an emergency meeting on Thursday, Aug. 15, to discuss options.
The council chose for a measured approach. In a letter addressed to Chowdry, the town alleges the $23,000 payment was two days late, a written plan to restore the shoreline zones was seven days late and applications for after-the-fact permits were still outstanding.
The letter reminds the property owners that the town has the legal right to collect a $77,000 late penalty, but the town will not exercise that right for now. Instead, the town hopes the Cacoulidises will meet all future deadlines, which call for complete compliance with town codes by the end of October.
“It’s basically a last-chance letter,” Dyer said. “Mess up again and we’re going to go after [the $77,000].”
The Cacoulidis’ lawyer said the after-the-fact permits have been submitted and the couple intends to meet all future deadlines.
“We’re planning to comply with the remainder of the [settlement],” Chowdry said.
A request to interview the couple wasn’t immediately acknowledged.
John Cacoulidis is a well-known New York developer with several holdings in Maine. He and his wife purchased Hope Island in 1993 for $1.3 million, according to news reports at the time.
Since then, the couple has developed the island, complete with roads and several buildings, including a large home, a guest house, a chapel, horse stables and barns that house exotic birds. All of the prior construction was reviewed, permitted and inspected by the town and performed by a crew of Cacoulidis’ full-time employees. Cacoulidis’ crew also performed the work described in the violations, Tozier said.
The island serves as a year-round home for the couple, whom Tozier describes as polite and in their 80s. He said the couple also has “a vision for the island that might be different from other people’s.”
“It’s definitely unique,” Tozier said.
The Cacoulidises are no strangers to publicity.
In the early 2000s, the couple made headlines with their unsuccessful attempt to secede from Cumberland, which had dominion over the island at the time, and establish Hope Island as an independent town.
In 2004, the couple was in the news again for erecting a large and highly visible George W. Bush-Dick Cheney campaign sign on their boathouse well before the 30-day run-up to the election, which some argued was a violation of a Cumberland ordinance.
In 2005, John Cacoulidis proposed two large developments in Portland and South Portland that would be connected by an aerial tram across Portland Harbor, but the project never gained traction or approval.
Tozier said he doesn’t know why Cacoulidis didn’t seek permits or approvals for the Hope Island projects, but said it’s inconceivable that Cacoulidis was unaware of the regulations.
“I mean, this is a sophisticated builder. He builds buildings all over New York City and the world. He knows the process,” Tozier said.
It’s purely speculative, but Tozier said his impression is that the couple’s motivation might have been based on principle, that they may have been taking a philosophical stand for property-owners’ rights.
Chowdry said Tozier’s impression is wrong.
“I don’t think Mr. Cacoulidis believes that. I think he’s quite willing to comply with reasonable regulations,” Chowdry said. “I think my client is, at least in my view, a rather skilled developer. I think he proceeded in good faith. The town took the position that there were some violations. We were prepared to contest them and raise other issues.”
Tozier said he hopes the Cacoulidises will follow through with the settlement and set things right on the island, which he described as a beautiful, well-executed development, aside from the violations.
“You have to be impressed with the work and what he has done,” Tozier said of John Cacoulidis. “He’s an immigrant who has amassed the ability to do this. That’s not easy to do. You have to respect that, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with breaking the law.”