GOULDSBORO — A 2½-inch-thick black binder is testament to the three months it has taken for the U.S. Navy and 23 Lighthouse Point Road residents to partially resolve a conflict over the military’s clearing of its neighboring parcel, without a requested deed change in hand, in order to make the Prospect Harbor Naval Satellite Operations Center compliant with anti-terrorism standards. The nearby property owners still have concerns about the outstanding deed issue and their secluded, strikingly scenic neighborhood’s future in a polarized world.
Sitting with the binder of correspondence resting on his knees, retired architect and seasonal Lighthouse Point Road resident Robert Bushwaller spoke about how he treasures his family’s 1.5-acre property straddling granite cliffs facing the Atlantic Ocean. The discreetly designed house blends in with the towering spruce and pine on the land that his father acquired as part of a 30-lot subdivision created just over 50 years ago. It is exactly that visually unobtrusive approach that Bushwaller and other neighbors have sought at the Prospect Harbor Naval Satellite Operations Center. Among the things they objected to were razor wire-topped security fencing, tall lighting poles and asphalt paving to follow the Navy’s clearing of a 1.42-acre shorefront parcel in the subdivision. The lot was purchased from the Dorothy Shaw estate on Aug. 4, 2014.
“It changed the character of the neighborhood,” said Bushwaller, referring to the tree cutting that commenced late last spring. His family home lies on the end of Lighthouse Point Road. The family is among 23 property owners whose year-round and seasonal homes are located off the dirt/gravel road section. He and others have had extensive communications with the Navy via letter, email and phone as well as in-person and online interactions over the authorities’ initial handling of the project and subsequent securing of concessions.
“The Navy is working with property owners to develop a mutually agreeable solution balancing the community’s concerns and [the] Navy’s mission and security requirements,” Congressional and Public Affairs Officer Danna Eddy wrote in an email to The American. She said those adjustments are ongoing and will be completed by the summer of 2022.
One persistent issue, though, is whether the Navy was within its rights to start work on the Shaw lot before a deed restriction was lifted. The Navy sent an Aug. 11 letter asking the Lighthouse Road subdivision’s property owners to OK the removal of a deed restriction limiting use of its abutting lot to residential and prohibiting commercial and industrial activity there. The letter, signed by the Norfolk, Va.-based Naval Facilities Engineering Command (Mid-Atlantic)’s Realty Specialist James Resolute, arrived more than two months after the tree cutting started last May. “If you object to the development of this project, please contact Mr. James Resolute,” it read.
Lighthouse Point Road resident Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, in an Aug. 30, 2020, letter to Resolute, wrote, “Why wasn’t the deed change requested before the bulldozers, chainsaws and fence builders moved in?”
Eddy acknowledged the unresolved deed issue. “Part of that effort is the proposed removal of the residential deed restrictions through negotiated means.”
Still looming in some property owners’ mind is what will come next. In the near future, they’ve been told the naval station’s present ground antenna, which is enclosed in a bubble-shaped dome, is to be replaced. Will it be larger and what will that project entail?
“The gorilla in the room is the antenna that they intend to install,” Bushwaller said.
The Navy’s original plan for the current project at the Prospect Harbor installation was to create a 33-space, paved parking lot and expand the satellite tracking and control facilities’ line of sight on the now 9.42-acre federal property, where the 170-year-old Prospect Harbor Lighthouse also stands. At the naval facility’s main entrance, a new canopied gatehouse is being built for vehicles to enter and be cleared through. A secondary entrance has been created. Eight-foot-high security fencing was called for around the station. Seventeen-to-twenty-foot-high lighting poles were specified, according to Bushwaller.
Starting in 2018, the Navy’s Community Plans and Liaison Officer Jackie Johnston, whose coverage area extends from Cutler to New York, informed the town of Gouldsboro that the Prospect Harbor station was due for anti-terrorism force protection upgrades. That notice took the form of talks with former Gouldsboro town managers Bryan Kaenrath and Sherri Dowling, former interim Town Manager Eve Wilkinson, current Town Manager Andrea Sirois as well as Code Enforcement Officer Jim McLean.
Last year, the Navy purchased the 1.42-acre abutting lot where a log cabin stood at the time. Late last year, Johnston walked the property and roughly outlined the anti-terrorism upgrades to McLean. At the time, she herself did not know the construction project’s details. The extent of tree-clearing, fencing and lighting specs and other details in the design/engineering plan were not actually drawn up until after the project was put out to bid and Worcester, Mass.-based Tantara Corp. chosen as the main contractor in the late summer of 2019.
“The town knew at some point that something was going to happen,” McLean recalled, stressing, “the town has no oversight at all over any naval property in Gouldsboro.”
In early February, a public notice ran in The Ellsworth American, informing the public of the U.S. Navy’s pending application before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to carry out “security modifications and upgrades” including the new gatehouse, asphalt paving and expanded and upgraded fencing at its Prospect Harbor facility. Some affected Lighthouse Point Road residents, however, do not read the newspaper. The notice stated the public had 20 days to comment. No public hearing was held, and the permit was granted. A copy of the 200-page application was and remains accessible to the public at the Gouldsboro town office.
Since 1964, when it moved its radar-antenna operation from the village of Corea to the former Coast Guard site at Prospect Harbor, the Navy has had a low-key presence and amicable relationship with its Lighthouse Point Road neighbors and the town. In fact, the naval station’s military/civilian crew provided 24-hour emergency dispatch for the Gouldsboro Volunteer Fire Department until that service was assumed by the Hancock County Regional Communications Center.
In addition, the Navy has paid to help maintain the Lighthouse Point Road’s unpaved section over the years. A formal road association does not exist, but the subdivision’s inhabitants annually contribute funds to clear downed trees and grade and plow the dirt/gravel stretch. It was through the informal group’s April 24, 2020, newsletter that some property owners first learned of the naval project. The newsletter contained a heads-up from Johnston about the imminent work. “Work will include, but not be limited to demolition of existing structures, selected tree removal and upgrades to the fence and entry gate…,” the message read. “…We expect onsite effort to begin in early to mid-May.”
In late May, Lighthouse Point Road residents saw first-hand or learned of the Navy’s tree cutting on the Shaw lot. The log cabin — which few neighbors expected to remain — had been demolished and the land cleared of trees save for a wooded swath. The tree cutting, coupled with the higher, barbed fencing, resembled an industrial park to them, Bushwaller said. They complained to Gouldsboro officials, but were told the town has no control or authority over the Navy’s project. They also appealed to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who raised the issue with the Navy.
Alarmed by the tree cutting, Bushwaller, Syler, Andrew Straz, Susan Weiss and other property owners persisted in making their case and persuading the Navy to lessen the project’s visual impact by reducing the height of lighting poles from 20 to 10.5 feet to help preserve the Downeast region’s night skies. The security fence will be 7 instead of 8 feet tall and a cedar fence will be built as a visual buffer along the closest privately owned lot. The parking lot will be topped with crushed stone rather than paved. The number of parking spaces has been reduced. A Maine landscape architect also has been hired to make further recommendations. “They [the Navy] have made some good concessions. They realize they did things out of sequence. They clearly underestimated the sentiment of the community…” said Bushwaller.