ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Ever since 1986, when Congress set a limit on how much Acadia can expand, residents and officials of surrounding towns have felt reassured that their towns would not be swallowed up by an ever-growing national park.
But since last fall, when officials say the 1986 law was circumvented to enable the park to absorb 1,441 acres on the Schoodic Peninsula that are located outside that boundary limit set 30 years ago, those anxieties have returned.
The vexation of several members of the park’s citizen advisory commission was on full display Monday when they questioned Acadia officials about the transfer of the land, which includes the newly opened Schoodic Woods campground. The same land that at one point was proposed for development into a large ecoresort, but then was purchased in 2011 by the Lyme Timber land management company, was deeded to the park last fall — despite the 1986 law that supposedly required Congress to approve any expansion of the park’s land holdings outside of certain lines drawn on a map.
No members of the advisory commission — which itself originally was created by the same law Congress approved 30 years ago — said they oppose the park owning the property outright. But they said the means by which the property was transferred, without a vote by Congress, flies in the face of the agreement the towns worked so hard to iron out with federal officials three decades ago. At the time, it was believed Congress would have to approve the park’s deeded acquisition of any land outside that boundary limit.
The commission members also seemed miffed that they were not consulted about the transfer before it took place. One of the primary reasons the 16-seat panel was created by Congress in 1986 was to consult with the National Park Service on “the acquisition of lands and interests in lands,” according to information posted on the national park’s website.
“We’ve been blindsided by this,” commission member Dexter Lee of Swan’s Island told new superintendent Kevin Schneider on Monday. “This is what we fought against in 1986. A permanent boundary is a permanent boundary in my book.”
In Winter Harbor, where most of the 1,441-acre parcel is located, the transfer in its ownership to Acadia is a change town officials say they’ve been expecting for some time.
Cathy Carruthers, Winter Harbor’s town manager, said Wednesday that park officials have been upfront with them for a couple of years about the eventual plan to incorporate the land into the national park. The manner in which the property was transferred, she said, has not been an issue for the town.
The primary concern for Winter Harbor officials was the loss of property tax revenue that resulted from having the federal government take ownership of the land.
“That was our big objection from day one,” Carruthers said.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust came up with a solution by offering, thanks to multiple donors, to give the town each year the full amount of what would have been owed in property taxes had the land remained in private hands, according to officials. The land trust will pay $7,821.75 to Winter Harbor annually, which was the tax bill total for having the entire parcel classified as tree growth, as Lyme Timber did.
Selectman Larry Smith Jr. said Wednesday that local residents are interested in what kind of impact the new campground will have on the town after it reopens next spring. He expects there will be some initial growing pains but that the overall impact on the town will be positive.
“I think it will probably play out pretty well,” Smith said. “I’m sure we’ll see some more businesses pop up.”
The justification cited by the park for not first getting congressional approval to accept the land is a prior law that Congress adopted in 1929.
According to a letter sent by the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor to National Park Service officials on Jan. 24, 2014, the 1929 law permits the park to accept ownership of donated land, as opposed to purchasing it. The 1986 law, according to the letter, sets physical limits for lands the park service can purchase and for lands on which the park can acquire conservation easements, but it does not specifically set limits for donated land.
“It is thus possible that the additional requirements of the 1986 act were added mainly to place limits on the new purchasing authority,” the letter indicates in a footnote.
Several members of the commission on Monday seemed dubious about this legal interpretation, which also suggested that the 1929 law appears to equate the acquisition of easements by the park to an expansion of the park’s boundary.
“I’m concerned any good lawyer could tear this [opinion] to shreds,” commission member Stephen Shea of Ellsworth said.
Carol Woodcock, a longtime representative in Sen. Susan Collins’ state office, also voiced concerns to park officials on Monday about the solicitor’s opinion and the manner in which the land was transferred. She said Maine’s congressional delegation should have been consulted when the question about Acadia acquiring the land first came up two years ago.
“We just got it a couple of weeks ago,” Woodcock said of the solicitor’s January 2014 letter. “There are lawyers who do not agree with the solicitor’s opinion. It would have been very helpful if we had been asked to introduce legislation before this mess.”
Without getting into any specific scenarios, Woodcock told the commission that there could be liability issues if the land transfer is deemed to be invalid under federal law and, in fact, Lyme Timber still owns the property.
Chris Rector, who works in Sen. Angus King’s state office in Augusta, also attended the meeting but did not address the commission.
Collins, King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, sent a joint letter on Jan. 7 to Jonathan Jarvis, director of the park service, saying that they had heard from “numerous” local people who were concerned about the legal authority used for transferring the land. They requested copies of the solicitor’s opinion so they could make sure the transfer complied with federal law and, if it did not, they could seek to rectify the situation in a timely manner.
“While many [area] residents also support the acquisition of the Schoodic Woods land, they want to be certain the law is followed and that this action by [the National Park Service] is not precedent setting,” the delegation members wrote in the letter.
Steve Katona, former president of College of the Atlantic and chairman of the commission, said that the legality of the transfer is almost beside the point. Whether or not a judge might agree with the solicitor, he said, the authorization cited in the 1929 law is unacceptable to the surrounding communities.
“It subverts the intention of the 1986 act, whether it does so legally or not,” Katona said.
Schneider, who has been on the job as Acadia’s new superintendent for only a week, promised the commission that as long as he holds the position, the park will not accept any more donations of land outside the 1986 boundary limit. Commission members seemed grateful for his promise, but said that Congress needs to come up with a long-term solution.
“I think we need to make sure this won’t happen in the future,” Matt Horton, a commissioner from Bar Harbor, told park officials.
“It is a big deal,” commission member Ben Worcester of Southwest Harbor added. “I’m familiar with the angst that used to exist between the [Mount Desert] Island communities and the park prior to . This needs to be corrected in one shape or another.”
The commission voted unanimously to send a letter to members of Maine’s congressional delegation saying that, despite the solicitor’s opinion, the panel wants Congress to approve the transfer of ownership of the Schoodic parcel to the park, and that it wants Congress to pass legislation that ensures the 1929 law can never again be used as justification for the park to acquire, without Congress’ specific approval, ownership of land outside the boundary limit set in 1986.