ST. GEORGE, Maine — Where Clark Island Road ends on one of the fingerlings protruding off the St. George peninsula, a weathered signed nailed to a telephone pole reads: “UNSAFE. No cars beyond here.”
But past that point — just across a granite and gravel causeway — lies Clark Island, a 170-acre island that is home to a coastline of beaches and rocky shoals, thick spruce forests, a long quarrying history and miles of trails.
For decades, the family that owns the island has allowed people to cross the causeway to enjoy the island’s beaches and quarry for swimming, or roads and trails for exploring.
As the current generation of landowners — three sisters who inherited the island from their father — looked toward the future of the island, they wanted to ensure generations of their family and the public would be able to keep enjoying Clark Island.
Enter, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a nonprofit land trust that is now working to raise $4.4 million to purchase and preserve the island for public use.
“We’ve always known [Clark Island] was a gem. It’s one of the only large, relatively undeveloped islands that is accessible by foot anywhere in the western or southern part of the Maine coast,” said Steve Walker, a Maine Coast Heritage Trust project manager.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust did not explore the possibility of acquiring and preserving Clark Island until three years ago, when the landowners approached the land trust with the pitch that they’d like to sell a majority of the island for conservation.
In the three years the trust has been working with the Nickerson family, they’ve hashed out a sale agreement that detailed how it would manage the island and what public use would look like once it is in conservation, Walker said. According to the agreement, 126 of the 170 acres will be conserved for public use, with the Nickerson family keeping the remaining acreage and their family home on the south side of the island.
The trust now has until March 2020 to raise the $4.4 million necessary to purchase the island. To help the fundraising campaign, the family gave the trust a “bargain sale” by selling the island for $3.5 million after it was appraised for $3.9 million. The additional $900,000 above sale price that the trust is trying to raise is for island stewardship.
“[The purchase agreement is] really a win, win, win — for the public and the environment and the family,” said Tom Davis, Elizabeth Nickerson Davis’ husband, who has been representing the family.
The $4.4 million price tag on the Clark Island project is the largest fundraising campaign currently being undertaken by the land trust, Walker said, and one of the largest campaigns in his five years working with it.
But with everything the island has to offer and its accessibility by foot, Walker said, another opportunity to preserve a property like this is not on the horizon.
“Prices on the Maine coast with supply and demand are just going up. … But knowing that piece of land, there’s nothing else like it that’s going to come up for sale soon,” Walker said. “That’s what we’re up against trying to conserve public access to Maine coast right now. It’s not cheap anymore.”
Since Clark Island is accessible by foot via the causeway, Walker said, there is nothing else like it on the midcoast. He compares Clark Island to Mackworth Island in Falmouth or Gerrish Island in Kittery, which is also owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
In addition to the coastal access Clark Island offers, Walker said, the island’s inland habitat is a boon for conservation. The island’s history includes periods of agriculture and granite quarrying, so the footprints left by both uses create a diverse island with fields, orchards, wetlands, thick forests and a deep quarry that can now be used for swimming.
“The wildlife habitat is amazing. A lot of the old quarry holes are now very alive and healthy vernal pools,” Walker said. “There are great bird-watching opportunities, great hiking opportunities. We will allow hunting, we will allow swimming in the quarry, and, of course, access to the shoreline and beaches.”
In 1957, after retiring as CEO from Mobil Oil, Al Nickerson purchased Clark Island for $25,000 from the Deer Isle Granite Co., according to Davis. Before building a house, Nickerson would camp on the island. Even after a house was built, Davis said, Nickerson spent much of his time on Clark Island clearing trails.
Keeping the island undeveloped and open for the family and public to enjoy was a decision the family believed would align with Nickerson’s original intent for the island, Davis said.
The alternative for Clark Island was selling pieces of the property for private development. Davis said the deed transferred from Nickerson to his three daughters allows for the island to be broken up into a maximum of 13 lots. While they could make more money through a sale to multiple private landowners, finding the highest bidder for the land was not the goal.
“The family was not interested in maximizing profit,” Davis said. “They wanted to preserve Clark Island as is. They wanted to see it improve.”
Walker said the situation the Nickersons found themselves in after decades of ownership is not unlike that of other families who have owned coastal properties in Maine for generations.
With financial situations differing among family members, the uncertainty of the future and coastal property taxes on the rise, Walker said, selling land into conservation can benefit the seller and the public.
“With land values going up, with assessments going up, it’s getting harder and harder for families after many generations to hold onto these [large coastal properties],” he said.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust is not new to the St. George peninsula. Three years ago the land trust purchased and preserved High Island, just off the village of Tenants Harbor.
The town of St. George voted to contribute $25,000 to the fundraising campaign for High Island.
On Tuesday night, St. George residents approved giving $10,000 to the land trust as an undesignated donation. The donation does not specifically go to the Clark Island project, but rather to show that the town supports the trust’s coastal conservation work, St. George Selectboard Chairman Richard Bates said.
Access to open space and to the waterfront are parts of the quality of life the the town of St. George values, Bates said.
In talking about other previously open spaces on the peninsula that have since been privatized, Bates said, “It would be a real shame if a beautiful spot like Clark Island were to go the same way.”
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