BAR HARBOR — The Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask Maine’s congressional delegation to introduce a bill authorizing Acadia National Park to annex 1,441 acres of land on the Schoodic Peninsula, including the new Schoodic Woods campground.
In doing so, the council joined other governmental entities that have questioned the method used by the National Park Service (NPS) to acquire the property without congressional approval.
Park service officials have cited a 1929 law that authorized the secretary of the interior to accept the donation of land “for the extension of Acadia National Park.”
But others argue that the 1929 law was, in effect, repealed by the 1986 act of Congress that established Acadia’s permanent boundary. That law authorized the NPS to acquire lands, but “only within the designated boundary.”
“Those of us who were very involved in the 1986 legislation were led to believe that no land would transfer without an act of Congress, and this is not what’s happened here,” Ken Smith, Bar Harbor’s representative on the Acadia Advisory Commission, told the council Tuesday night. “We’re concerned about the precedent that sets.”
He called it “kind of scary.”
Swans Island Selectman Dexter Lee testified at a congressional hearing in support of the 1986 law and has served on the Acadia Advisory Commission since it was created by that legislation.
He told the Bar Harbor Town Council, “I believe the 1986 legislation outweighs the 1929 legislation, which basically says if they can see it from the top of Cadillac, they can have it. We fought it back then because every town in the neighborhood was losing taxable property, and we didn’t know what parcel was going to go into the park next.”
The Swans Island Board of Selectmen was the first to formally question the method by which Acadia accepted Schoodic Woods.
“Many of us fought for years to establish this boundary and do not believe the action taken … is legal,” the selectmen said in a Nov. 25 letter to the National Park Service.
Acadia’s Deputy Superintendent Mike Madell responded in a letter dated Dec. 8.
He said Acadia and NPS officials had explored several avenues for accepting the donation.
“Each of these methods presented challenges in some form or other,” he wrote. “The Department of the Interior solicitor’s office … informed us that ultimately the strongest legal method for acceptance of the land in fee title was under the authority provided to the secretary in [a 1929 act of Congress].
“This change is legal and this is not a precedent in any way for future annexations,” Madell said in his letter. “We want to assure you that we have not and will not subvert the intention of the 1986 Act.”
Despite that assurance, Lee said, “I just don’t think they did it legally. I think they overstepped the line.
“Nobody on the [Acadia Advisory] Commission and nobody I know of is opposed to the eventual addition of Schoodic Woods to the park,” he said. “But it has to be done in the correct manner.”
Lee said he has “no fault” with Acadia officials, but with the legal advice they were given.
“I think they are scared to put it into Congress; that’s my gut feeling,” he told the Town Council. “They are afraid something else is going to get attached to it.”
Town Councilor David Bowden said that if the NPS can change Acadia’s boundary without congressional approval, then the 1986 law “is just thrown out the window.”
“I think the relationship between the park and the communities has gotten a lot better in the last 20-some years, and I would hate to see something like this hurt it,” he said.
Acadia Advisory Commission member Matt Horton of Bar Harbor said after reading Madell’s letter that he still was not convinced of the legality of the Schoodic annexation. He said in an email to fellow commissioners that, while they all agree the property should be part of Acadia, “The means in which we gain that parcel must be legitimate and lawful in the eyes of the general public.
“The federal government has to abide by the law,” Horton said. “I am afraid the longer this matter remains as is, the greater the damage to public trust [in Acadia and the Department of the Interior].”
The Town Council’s letter requesting a boundary adjustment bill for the Schoodic parcel is being sent to Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, and to Rep. Bruce Poliquin.