July 15, 2013

Should Kittery throw life buoy to old rescue station?

Petitioners ask the town not to demolish the island building, but there are obstacles.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

KITTERY – Looking out from a wooden bench on the front lawn of Sam Reid's summer home, past the boats that pepper Pepperrell Cove, the Wood Island Life Saving Station probably seems no different than it did a century ago, when civil servants watched and waited for ships in distress near Portsmouth Harbor.

click image to enlarge

Sam Reid, president of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, formed the nonprofit group in hopes of getting the town of Kittery Point to transfer ownership of the building, in background, so it could be restored and turned into a museum.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Roger Troudeau of Belgium, left, walks on Wood Island with his daughter Kate. The Wood Island Life Saving Station behind them was built in 1908 and staffed by civil servants who watched for ships in distress near Portsmouth Harbor.

LIFE SAVING STATIONS IN MAINE

The U.S. Life Saving Service, the predecessor of the Coast Guard, built the Wood Island Life Saving Station in 1908.

The station was taken over by the U.S. Navy during World War II to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from German submarines. The Coast Guard, which the Life Saving Service became in 1915, took back the station after the war and ran it until the 1950s, when a new station was built in New Castle.

The island and building were considered surplus until the 1970s, when the federal government gave the property to the town of Kittery, under the condition that it could not be sold or leased and that the town would keep it accessible to the public.

The Wood Island Life Saving Station was the last of 13 stations built in Maine, said Kirk Mohney, assistant director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Mohney said the stations were put up starting in 1874 “in areas with significant maritime traffic where the potential for ship disaster was high.”

Nine were on offshore islands – Cross, Browney’s, Crumple, Great Wass, Little Cranberry, Whitehead, Burnt, Damariscove and Wood Island. The others were at Quoddy Head in Lubec, Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Fletcher’s Neck in Biddeford Pool, and in Cape Elizabeth, Mohney said.

At the commission’s last count in the 1980s, 11 stations remained.

The Wood Island Life Saving Station was listed by Maine Preservation last year as one of the state’s most endangered historic resources.

– Leslie Bridgers

Take a five-minute ride in Reid's Boston Whaler and the view up close tells a different story.

The wooden doors to the room where the life-saving boats were stored are gone, the floor has caved in, and part of the roof looks ready to collapse.

Obscured by sumac trees, a warning sign hanging from the shingled wall makes its point four times over: "Danger. Hazardous Area. No Trespassing. Keep Out."

About 850 residents of Kittery recently signed petitions attempting to prevent the town from demolishing the building and to transfer ownership to the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, a nonprofit group formed by Reid in 2011 in hopes of restoring the building and turning it into a museum.

Last month, the group submitted those petitions to the town in an effort to force a special election on the proposal. Last week, the Town Council decided against holding the election on the premise that a private sale is prohibited by a deed dating back to when the federal government turned the property over to the town.

Still, the signatures spoke to at least some councilors, who had favored demolishing the building and letting the island return to its natural state.

"There is some support here," said Jeff Pelletier, vice chairman of the council and a member of the town's Wood Island Advisory Committee.

The council is now considering holding a nonbinding referendum in November to gauge the entire town's views on restoring the building.

Although Reid doesn't agree that the petitions are negated by the deed, he said the council's discussion about a referendum was promising.

"That's a sea change," he said. Still, he wants to make sure it wasn't just talk.

"What we would like to see are some concrete steps," said Reid. If none are taken, he said, the group plans to "review our options," including legal action.

In Pelletier's opinion, the next step should be to find out from the Planning Board what construction could be allowed on the building, considering that Wood Island is subject to conservation, floodplain and shoreland resource restrictions.

"There's no guarantee anything can be done on this island," he said.

Pelletier believes discussing who should do what to the building "is the cart before the horse."

Reid, on the other hand, would like his group and the town to come together on what they want to happen, then figure out how.

"What we should be talking about is the bigger picture," he said.

Therein lies what Pelletier described as the philosophical difference of opinion between the town and Reid's group. And there are more of them.

The association has proposed raising money to restore the building and turn it into a museum with signs that tell its history. It would also like there to be a dock on the island to make it more accessible.

And if the group is willing to put up the money, it should have a say in what happens there, Reid said.

Pelletier doesn't want a museum, which he believes would open up the island to vandalism, or a dock, which would draw more visitors, creating wear and tear on the land and a liability for the town.

"I think what most people want is to look out their window, whether it's their car window or living room window or off the side of their boat, and see the iconic seascape of the lifesaving station," he said.

Pelletier would accept a donation from the association to restore the building for that purpose, but doesn't want the town to give up control of the island.

"A gift is not, 'I'll do this for you, but you've got to give me this,'" Pelletier said.

He said the Wood Island Advisory Committee recommended demolition of the building because it was a hazard and there wasn't apparent public support to pay for its restoration and maintenance. Now that residents have spoken up in favor of that, he said, he's willing to see if they'll pay for it.

"Is your wallet where your mouth is?" he said.

But Reid's group has said it would take care of the money. It already has $100,000 in pledges and there isn't even a project. Reid said the group is willing to make concessions, like not having the dock. He believes the town's problem is that it doesn't trust the group to do what it says it will, to keep it open to the public, to have control.

Pelletier said that's one thing he could agree on.

"There is a deficit of trust there, and that has only deepened," he said, citing the petition drive as an attempt to circumvent the council.

According to Reid, that was the point -- to let the people speak for what they want.

"It's obvious the citizens of Kittery want this building," he said.

But as long as nothing happens, the building will continue to deteriorate. That's the other thing they can agree on.

"Obviously, every day that goes by is not good for a wooden building on a small island off the coast of Maine," Reid said.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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