Mark Island, one of the islands in dispute, is seen here in this 2013 file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Waldo County officials say a 70-year-old mapping error has led to a string of islands being wrongly considered a part of Knox County for decades, something they are trying to correct so it isn’t perpetuated.

There have been at least two prominent disputes over islands at the northern and southern borders of the state, with one between Maine and New Hampshire winding up in the U.S. Supreme Court. But confusion over where islands lie within Maine’s counties and towns is rare. This is the first such issue between Knox and Waldo counties.

At stake are about nine small islands. Only one, Lasell Island, has any buildings on it. They are all considered part of Maine’s Unorganized Territory — meaning they belong to no town — and they make up the southern end of the Islesboro archipelago.

“The [mapping] mistake just kept getting perpetuated and everybody believed it. So all we’re trying to do is get it resolved,” Waldo County EMA Director Dale Rowley said. “We’re just trying to correct the record.”

Questions regarding whether or not Lasell belonged in Knox or Waldo counties have been passed down by word of mouth for years, according to Rowley. Despite appearing on maps as being located in Knox County, Waldo County receives about $3,000 from the state ― which collects property taxes for unorganized territories ― for the island in tax revenue every year.

It wasn’t until January 2020 that county officials decided to look a little deeper into the issue, after the U.S. Census Bureau reached out to confirm that there were no geographic boundary issues in the county as the agency prepared the 2020 census.  

Based on a review of state statutes that define the borders of Waldo County and historic maps, Waldo County officials say the entire Islesboro archipelago belongs in their county and the location of some of the islands being considered Knox County stems from a 1941 mapping error that has been perpetuated on modern maps.

“These islands were always a part of Waldo and then some guy in 1941 draws a line in the wrong location and the error, the mistake, has been carried forward ever since,” Rowley said. “That’s our position.”

Knox County officials have not dug into the matter deeply enough to be able to determine if they agree with this position, according to Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart. While the two counties were briefly looking into the issue around Lasell Island with a representative from the state’s land use and planning commission, Hart said this work stalled during the pandemic.

But the issue has resurfaced, following a bill from Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, which seeks to get the Legislature to clarify the border between the counties. A legislative committee met on the matter last week and instructed the two counties to try to reach an agreement on the facts of the situation. A meeting between the counties is tentatively scheduled for early February.

“Ideally, we’re hoping that everyone will look at the maps and look at the history and say ‘Yeah, we think that’s it,’” Curry said.

Christopher Page, who has owned the majority of 115-acre Lasell Island for about 20 years, lives there during the summer and has always been under the impression that he was a property owner in Knox County. The island is about 4 miles off the coast of Camden in Knox County, where he stores his boat.

“I prefer to stay in Knox County, I think, I’m not really sure I have a good reason for that, other than just that’s where we’ve been all these years and so I’d like to stay there. But if they move it they move it. There’s nothing I can do about it,” Page said.

Disputes over islands off Maine’s coast are rare, but they have happened.

“This is not something that happens a lot and normally it happens when the colonial records are ambiguous which they frequently were,” said Matthew Edney, a history of cartography professor at the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a dispute between Maine and New Hampshire involving Seavey Island, located in the Piscataqua River and home to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The court agreed with Maine that the border between the two states was located in the middle of the river, not along the river’s northern shoreline, meaning that Seavey Island and the shipyard belonged to Maine, according to Bangor Daily News archives.

Both the U.S. and Canada have claimed ownership of Machias Seal Island ―  located about 12 miles off the coast of Cutler ― and the waters around it, which has led to disputes over fishing territory.

It’s unclear if disputes over islands have arisen between counties or towns before, but Edney couldn’t rule it out.

“It would not surprise me that there have been disputes over the presence of an island in one town or another or in one county or another. Not so much as a resource on the islands themselves, but in claiming to regulate the waters around them. But each one is a unique case,” Edney said.