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OWLS HEAD, Maine — Town officials say the clock is running out on renewing a lease that assures the public of having access to its deep-water harbor.
The town has had a lease for nearly 50 years for a 3-foot wide easement for foot traffic along a wharf on the harbor where Ship to Shore Lobster Co. is located. That easement ends Dec. 7, 2016. So far, there has been no agreement to extend it, Owls Head Selectman Richard Carver said.
Carver said the easement is crucial because public access is required by the federal government for it to maintain the federal channel that eventually will have to be dredged again.
The town has been trying for several years to work toward an extension of the lease, Carver said. A town committee was formed in 2008 to work on options for public access if renewal were not possible.
Rodney Mason, who owns the wharf and business with his wife, Anna Mason, acknowledged he has been slow in getting back to the town, saying he works a full-time job at FMC in addition to working at the wharf.
Mason said a town resident approached him this week and offered to serve as an intermediary between town officials and himself. Mason said he agreed but did not identify the person because he did not know whether the person wanted his name released.
The easement was first signed between the town and Peter Reed Jr. on Dec. 7, 1966. The term was for 50 years or whenever the town built its own public wharf. The town pays nothing for the lease.
The current lease for the easement allows public access to both fishermen and pleasure boaters. The town has a ramp and floats at the end of the wharf.
Carver said the easement is heavily used because there is no other public deep-water access to the harbor. He said there is no official count of how many people use it but added that it is extensive and crucial for the community.
Mason said he does not see an urgency in starting negotiations, noting it is a year and a half before the lease expires. The head selectman views it differently, however.
“The problem is the time is running down,” Carver said.
He said if the town is not able to reach an agreement with the owners, that would leave the community little time to find an alternative.
One option being explored is the town purchasing a portion of property on the north side of the Ship to Shore property, where the town could build a pier. Carver said last week at a selectmen’s meeting that he had a conversation with that owner, who said he was only interested in selling the entire parcel. He said no definitive price was offered and the owner said he would need to talk with his wife before having further discussions.
Carver said if the town had to acquire property and build a pier, that could take a long time, considering voter approval would be needed, permits would be needed and time would be needed for construction. He said he at least would like to get a short-term extension on the lease, which would allow more time for the town to find an alternative.
The selectman said he heard the property is for sale, but Mason said that is not the case. Mason said he also has been hearing the sale rumors for a few years with people telling him the specific sale price and new owner.
The Masons purchased the property and 14,200-square-foot wharf in October 2008.
Carver said the easement benefits the community and the wharf’s owners. He said the easement allows for the channel to be dredged so bigger boats can come into the location and then access the harbor.
In November 2008, the Land for Maine’s Future Board voted to spend $226,250 to obtain a working waterfront covenant on the Ship to Shore property. That easement, which was signed in February 2010, does not guarantee public access but requires the wharf remain in use for commercial fishing.
If the Masons were to sell the property, the state would have the first right to refusal to purchase the property after an appraisal was done, then the price could not exceed that appraisal.
Sarah Demers, director of the land for Maine’s Future Program, said Thursday the agency’s staff has been in touch with members of the Owls Head community regarding this issue and have made them aware of the public access to Maine’s Waters Fund, also administered by the Land for Maine’s Future Board. This fund is available to applicants to acquire property or obtain an easement to ensure public access to fresh or coastal waters.
Owls Head has been embroiled in a separate waterfront access dispute for the past few years over whether the town has a public road easement at the end of Coopers Beach Road which runs to Rockland Harbor. The town has spent $120,000 to defend itself and maintain that public road easement in response to a lawsuit filed in November 2011 by a New York couple who own a home in the disputed waterfront area.