BLUE HILL, Maine — When you cast off from the downtown dock in Blue Hill Harbor, there’s no guarantee that water will be there when you return.
Karlo and Paula Appro didn’t know that. The married couple toured the harbor shoreline in their two-person kayak at a casual pace on Friday, admiring the golf course and stately homes on the shoreline and stopping for lunch at a seaside restaurant before finishing their approximately 5-mile journey hours later.
They had no idea that low tide leaves the town-owned facility at the edge of a vast and sometimes smelly mudflat. Although some residents oppose the notion, fearing a glut of tourist traffic, the Board of Selectmen is investigating having the harbor dredged so that users, including local lobstermen, can make better use of it.
The Appros were glad they didn’t get stuck in ankle-deep muck as much as 100 yards from shore, which can happen.
“We had no clue. No clue at all,” Paula Appro said, “but as we were paddling back, my husband marveled at how lucky we got that we arrived just perfectly at high tide. We came from Rockland. We didn’t check the tides at all, so we just lucked out.”
Lobster boats use the town dock, which has a winch for lifting traps, but only at high tide. The water just isn’t deep enough to accommodate their boats otherwise, said Florence B. Prouty, owner of Bears n’ Me, a gift shop that sits opposite the town dock and fire station on Water Street.
“I think it would be nice to have the lobstermen who are now in South Blue Harbor,” Prouty said. “We should set it up so that we will have more of our working class people who live here working in downtown.”
Whether to dredge the harbor has been a town issue going back to the 1880s. Most recently, selectmen have been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to finish an analysis of the harbor it began and has been working on intermittently since about 2014, Selectmen Vaughn Leach said.
Early estimates place the cost of dredging at about $2 million. With federal grants and the town paying back its share of the cost over 30 years, that cost might be bearable, or it might be “optimistic,” Selectwoman Ellen Best said.
Another concern would be how much it would cost to develop the infrastructure, such as docks, that would be needed to make dredging worthwhile, Best said.
And how close to the town dock could the dredging actually get?
“The issue becomes, as we were discussing earlier in a different format, what’s cost effective? There are some obvious benefits to having the harbor dredged, depending on what that price tag is, [and] what people’s appetites for it are,” Best said.
Today, dozens of sailboats, lobstering craft and other boats use the harbor, but they anchor in the eastern portions near Peters Point, Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club and Sculpin Point. Most of the back half of the harbor, which adjoins Water and Main streets, drains at low tide, leaving only shallow pools.
Most fishermen have rowboats or other shallow-draft vessels tied to trees or stakes in the ground near the yacht club or Peters Point that they use as transport to their fishing boats. None of the smaller vessels are anchored near the town dock.
“Sail boats, motor boats, they all come in here, but they have to do it right now, when the tide is up,” Prouty said.
Local kayak rental businesses schedule trips that allow clients to have lunch or dinner at local restaurants, but the trips are all scheduled around the tide — a costly inconvenience, said Annaliese Riggall, owner of The Boat Yard Grill, which adjoins the harbor on East Blue Hill Road.
With dredging, “that kind of traffic would increase, which would be good for that kind of business and other businesses like it,” Riggall said.
“I think [with dredging] you’re just looking at increasing a little bit more foot traffic in town, not necessarily cutting down on the amount of traffic driving through town, unfortunately,” Riggall said.
Selectmen have been waiting for more than a month for a cost estimate report from the Army Corps of Engineers. That town has spent about $100,000 on corps studies of the harbor without seeing a final report. Corps representatives told the board that they would need another $20,000 or so to finish their work, but agreed to send a report to the town after the board said it couldn’t appropriate that kind of money without a town vote, Leach said.
The board doesn’t know when the report will arrive.