April 7, 2013

Boatbuilder, Freeport at odds over ship

Freeport officials set a deadline for Harold Arndt to float his schooner or move it from his property.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT - The town of Freeport and a longtime resident of the Flying Point neighborhood are locked in a dispute over a long-delayed boat-building project that may be headed to court.

click image to enlarge

The Island Rover dominates the property of Harold Arndt on Bucknam Road in Freeport. The still-unfinished schooner has been assembled from scrap metal and recycled material.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Harold Arndt

The 89-foot Island Rover, a schooner assembled from scrap metal and recycled material, is the subject of an intractable dispute between the town, which contends the project runs afoul of zoning laws, and Harold Arndt, the ship's ambitious, eccentric builder.

For nearly 21 years, Arndt and his supporters have toiled on his wooded lot, grinding, bending and welding steel ribs and plating and assembling them into the rusty hull that dominates his property on Bucknam Road. He is still determined to use the vessel to teach about waste and recycling.

But the town is running out of patience for the project, and has set an August deadline for Arndt and his nonprofit group, the Island Rover Foundation, to complete enough work on the boat so it can be launched into the water or moved from the property. If he fails to comply, Arndt risks a lawsuit by the town that could impose fines of $100 a day.

"We're in a Mexican standoff right now," Arndt said in a recent phone interview. "What we were doing is not illegal."

Town councilors, meanwhile, have said they are bound to enforce the legal agreement between Arndt and the town worked out in 2005 and then renewed for three years in 2010. The agreement stipulated Arndt's boat to be both an illegal manufacturing use in the residential zone, and an unsanctioned junkyard.

Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph told the council in September that a third extension of the project deadline was under consideration, but Arndt withdrew, and was not able to provide a letter of credit that would cover the high cost of moving the boat, which weighs upwards of 80 tons.

Estimates to move the vessel by trailer a mile away to the ocean run between $80,000 and $120,000, Joseph has said.

At a meeting last year when the Town Council was preparing to take up the issue again, Joseph said the situation presents a dilemma for Arndt. For him to comply with the consent agreement and move the boat within a mile of its current location, Arndt will have to raise as much as $120,000, Joseph said. But attracting donors is difficult while the town continues to increase the pressure on Arndt with looming litigation.

While the ship's hull looks relatively complete, the patchwork of steel plate that covers the ship must be welded together at every exterior seam, and a large hole in the stern that would accommodate a propeller must also be sealed.

Arndt's foundation has had mixed success drawing donations, according to publicly available tax records.

From 2004 to 2010, the latest years for which records are available, Arndt's organization collected $32,460. His best year was in 2008, when donors gave $8,288 to the Island Rover's mission of educating the world about the perils of waste and the consumption-driven economy.

"If you try hard enough, you can do anything," Joseph said. "But there is, I guess, a limit to what a nonprofit foundation in their financial situation can accomplish."

Support for Island Rover in the neighborhood has divided residents, according to documents and interviews. Some people are charmed by Arndt's kindness and optimism, and have turned a lenient eye to his dream boat.

Town Council Chairman James Hendricks said Arndt is applying for permits required to move the boat, itself an expensive and complex process.

"Hopefully he can get it resolved before the deadline," said Sarah Tracy, town councilor for the neighborhood. "I think we're all rooting for him. He's a good guy."

Gregg Carville, 39, who moved into the quiet waterfront community two years ago, said that as long as Arndt is not hurting anyone, he should be left to his own devices.

"Obviously Harold is unique," Carville said. "It's a labor of love."

Others have said the project, with its accompanying clutter, is an eyesore, and drags down property values in the increasingly tony enclave -- yet there are still pangs of doubt over whether Arndt and his project should be forced out.

Ed Roberts, who lives on Maquoit Drive and has a direct line of sight from his backyard into the project's epicenter, joked that his home would jump in value if Arndt's peculiar hobby -- and the mounds of junk that surround it -- suddenly disappeared.

But Roberts said he would be saddened to see the boat cut up for scrap, and believes the Town Council has given Arndt requirements that are impossible to achieve, while the boat itself may be an albatross.

"It's almost an impossible dream," Roberts said. "We all feel like we're breaking his heart."

When a reporter approached him at his home, Arndt, his blue eyes twinkling, was coy about the project's future. While he declined to discuss his legal plans, he did offer a written statement acknowledging the council's unanimous decision to enforce the agreement that could mean the boat's eviction, and said he welcomes the town's code enforcement officer when warmer weather arrives.

Asked whether construction would continue in the meantime, Arndt paused. "Spring is coming," he said.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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