Greer Island--and you thought owning an island might be fun
Sun, 10 July 2005 22:27
Ask Elizabeth Ayer if owning an island is fun. And ask the town before you buy...
From the B a n g o r D a i l y N e w s 6/25/05:
VINALHAVEN - Elizabeth Arey believes the worth of her small, uninhabited island has been washed away.
A stone's throw from Vinalhaven's shores, the 5-acre Greer Island has been in the family of Arey's late husband, James Arey, for more than a century.
The lush, green land surrounded by a rocky shoreline has elevated building sites with a stand of tall balsam and spruce trees and wild roses and strawberries nearby. At the water's edge stands a small hut, a protected anchorage and a sandbar to Vinalhaven at low tide.
Until last fall, when the 67-year-old widow had lined up a buyer, she hadn't realized the town had tightened restrictions on certain areas, including Greer Island, for what it calls resource protection. So Arey was denied a building permit, and the prospective buyer backed out.
What Arey thought would be her retirement nest egg has been affected by those changes because, she argues, Greer Island is now virtually unfit for building.
Her attorney calls the town's actions an "unconstitutional taking" of land without compensation, but some town officials argue that so-called "spot" zoning is bad land-use planning.
At issue are the town's decisions first to place the entire island under what regulators call "resource protection," and later, to make the land-use regulations even stricter.
According to Vinalhaven assessor Wesley Robinson, the 5.1 acres are assessed at $186,900 as a "buildable" property in resource protection. It is considered "buildable," he said, because with zoning board approval the owner could build a 600-square-foot structure with no interior plumbing. Arey's 2005 tax bill is approximately $1,495.
Arey argues that prospective buyers want modern amenities and that to sell the property she would need a permit to build a "low-impact" two-bedroom house with indoor plumbing, which the ordinance allows in residential marine zones of 3 acres of more. She was asking nearly $900,000 for the island.
"Greer has been in use for centuries and is a strong, viable island that has survived the harshest of Maine winters for eons," Arey said. "There is simply no reason to deny me the right to build one small vacation home there. And the town has been taxing me and assessing me all these years as if it were a non-resource-protected island. My valuation has never decreased."
In March, Arey tried to have the Vinalhaven Planning Commission rezone the island. Her request was denied.
"The planning commission is not in favor of spot zones," commission Chairwoman Gigi Baas said. "The planning commission has never supported the idea of individual [properties] being taken out of a special zone category. It's not responsible land-use planning."
According to Baas, the resource protection designation has been in place since 1974. Some 20 years later, in 1993, some islands were removed from that designation, she said. But all the islands designated as Class A habitats - including Greer- remained in the "resource protection" category. In addition, the town toughened its land-use regulations.
Complicating matters, some maps have identified the property as "Green Island." Earlier this month, a referendum initiated by Arey sought to change the island's name to Greer, which her attorney said would have removed it from resource protection. Town voters rejected the measure by a 46-vote margin.
Baas, Town Manager Marjorie Stratton and the town's attorney said the island's name is irrelevant.
And the town officials wonder why Arey did not seek a zone change by voters.
In October, Keel Kemper, a regional wildlife biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, visited Greer Island and found it does not legally meet the state's criteria to be an essential or significant wildlife habitat.
"I'm sure it provides wildlife," he said, but it is not a protected area for seabirds or shorebirds. "I'm speaking from a legal standpoint. It may be a fine distinction, but it's an important distinction."
Kemper said Greer Island will never be a significant habitat because there are no mud flats.
Of some 3,000 islands in Maine, only about 300 are designated significant wildlife habitat areas, he noted.
Baas said she is sympathetic to Arey's predicament. Yet, she noted, in 1992 Arey obtained building and septic permits for the island that were never acted upon.
"If she had the presence of mind to get permits, she knew something was going on," Baas said. "All you had to do was pour some footings, and you were golden."
Arey said she thought the 1992 permits were "the proof it was buildable." Those permits expired.
Kemper, Brad Allen of DIF&W and Rich Baker of the state Department of Environmental Protection said resource protection is something each Maine town adopts from minimum standards suggested by the state.
The bottom line is: It's within a town's purview how a conservation plan's recommendations are used, Allen said.
If lawyers get involved, the town may have to revisit zoning criteria for all islands, Allen said. "That might be the responsible way to go," he said.
Arey and her attorney, Clifford Goodall, will seek a building permit from the Vinalhaven Planning Board on July 13. If denied, her case will go before the zoning appeals board. If rejected there, the next step is Superior Court.
Goodall didn't rule out trying for a zone change by referendum.
Given the overwhelming rejection June 14 of a stricter revised comprehensive plan for Vinalhaven, Arey said, residents may have a better understanding of her plight.
"At any time, I would much rather work with the town than fight it," she said.