WINTER HARBOR, Maine — Every year for as long as she can remember, Philippa Harvey, a 75-year-old retired teacher from Orrington, has spent her summers on Norris Island on Frenchman Bay.
The 3.5-acre granite- and spruce-covered island is located just north of Frazer Point on the western side of Schoodic Peninsula, and it has been in her family since the 1870s, when her ancestors bought it for just $3.50. Harvey, her children and grandchildren consider Norris Island a cherished haven, but this year there has been a shadow cast on their usual summer activities of lobster fishing, card games and spending time together. The most pressing concern for Harvey and her family is how to ensure they will be able to access the island into the future.
“I don’t have money to leave them. This is the heritage I have to leave my family,” she said. “You can’t buy happiness.”
Although the problem of guaranteeing public access to waterfront land is an old story that reverberates all along the coast of Maine, what’s happening with Harvey and her family is a little different. In their case, they own the island, but no other nearby parcel on the mainland where they could park their vehicles. Since the 1930s, family members said they’ve been allowed to park their vehicles on land owned by the National Park Service. They have been in the habit of leaving their cars along Schoodic Loop Road near the causeway.
But the park service has cracked down on that longstanding tradition. This year, it stopped allowing the family to park alongside the road, and officials this spring told Harvey she could use one space at the small Frazer Point lot just until the end of 2016.
The situation, however, is fluid and changing. The family has appealed to Sen. Susan Collins for help, and this month, Collins wrote Harvey a letter saying that it is her understanding that the park had reversed the decision to only authorize the parking space at Frazer Point until the end of the year.
This spring, Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider wrote a letter saying that although officials empathize with the family’s challenges, the park has “no legal obligation to facilitate your convenient access to the land.”
However, according to the letter Collins wrote, the reversal means that there will be a “likelihood of renewing this arrangement [to use one designated parking space] every year.”
“I am discouraged, upset and bewildered by the situation that my family has encountered with the National Park Service,” Harvey said. “They have a legal right. They own the land. But I feel since they have allowed us to park on their land for so long that they have created a situation that should be grandfathered.”
The one parking space now allocated is better than nothing, the family acknowledges, but it still would not provide the family members the amount and ease of access they had grown used to over the decades.
“The park owns it, so of course they have the legal right to do that,” Harvey’s daughter, Pauline Miller of Orrington, said. “But the moral and ethical thing is that we’ve been doing this all along [and should be allowed to continue].”
“I regret that you are unhappy with the outcome,” Collins said in a handwritten postscript to the letter. “My staff felt that one parking space was a lot better than none.”
An island for family fun
Harvey and her family understand that many Mainers would think that anyone who owns an island off the coast has the financial resources to deal with parking or whatever problem might come up. But for them, that is just not the case, they said. The Norris relatives who purchased it back in the 19th century were ordinary Winter Harbor fishermen, and Harvey described the current generation as lower middle class.
“People think because we own this island, we have a lot of money. But we don’t have money,” Harvey said.
Instead, they have Norris Island.
Over the years, the family has used wood from island trees to build two simple camps there. Instead of wallpaper or a different, more expensive covering, the family has decorated the interior with mounted jigsaw puzzles and family photos.
Family members also lovingly created an “island museum” in the woods, where they have curated the flotsam and jetsam found over the years on the island’s shore with artistic flare. They have cleared dead trees away to make paths, soft underfoot thanks to the carpet of pine needles and sphagnum moss, that lead down to the cold green ocean where Harvey fishes a line of lobster traps.
“It’s fun whenever we’re down here,” said Keagen Grass, 13, of Brewer, Harvey’s great-grandson. “There’s no TV, so we don’t watch stuff. We have scavenger hunts and play Wiffle ball.”
The island is where the family has made decades worth of happy memories and hope to continue doing so long into the future, but the Harvey family knows that land can be lost. Their 1870s fishermen kin purchased a total of 1,000 acres of Schoodic land, but long ago — perhaps by the turn of the 20th century, Harvey said — nearly all the rest of the land was sold. Now, only the island is left.
The structures on it are not fancy. There’s no electricity and no plumbing, and the family members have to haul their drinking water with them. The rustic oceanfront gazebo that is the family’s pride and joy only recently had glass put in the windows in order to enjoy the million-dollar views even in blustery weather. One camp building sleeps a total of 16 people, mostly in one room that is littered with beds in a way that is reminiscent of an Army barracks or scout camp. In that room, a stack of dusty Down East magazines from the 1970s waits for someone to peruse the pages.
“I can’t even imagine my life without the island,” Miller said. “We like to share it with everybody, and we just feel very fortunate to have it.”
The primary reason that precipitated the park service’s parking changes for the Harvey family is new development on Schoodic Peninsula, according to John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park.
Last fall, the new Schoodic Woods Campground was opened as the culmination of a decade-long effort to protect a 3,200-acre tract of land on the Schoodic Peninsula. The park service said last year that the land in question had been threatened by the development of a resort, including a hotel, golf course, sports center and luxury villas.
As a result, the popularity of the Schoodic Peninsula, long known as the quieter, mainland portion of Acadia National Park, has been surging. On a recent Tuesday night, rangers had to tell would-be campers that the campground was full, and Frazer Point was busy with visitors fishing off the dock or paddling kayaks in the calm blue water of Frenchman Bay.
“The area that was impacted by the new construction and the trails was the place that we had, as a big courtesy, allowed [Harvey] to park,” Kelly said. “As with other things, the situation has changed. The development of the new bike path and the facility at Schoodic have impacted the location that she was given.”
Harvey said that other options for continued island access seem hard to come by. The family said it can’t afford to keep its boat at the Winter Harbor Yacht Club, located on Grindstone Neck, and the lack of apparent options is why it is continuing to petition the park service to let the family members have or lease four parking spaces near the island.
“Norris Island, for me, is the way life should be. Norris Island is home,” she said. “That’s what I’m fighting for.”