The Island Rover, a 113-foot-long vessel built of recycled steel, sits on a private right-of-way in Freeport in March 2019, ready to hit the water but with no immediate way to do so. The ship, and what to do with it, remains at the heart of legal battles between owners Harold Arndt and Carter Becker and the town of Freeport. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

FREEPORT — After nearly 30 years of waiting and 15 years of legal battles, the Island Rover, the landlocked, 80-ton, 113-foot topsail schooner in Freeport, remains stuck, with roadblocks seemingly at every turn, much to the frustration of everyone involved.

A year and a half ago, in March 2019, The Times Record reported that the boat was finally finished and ready to go, but that neither party could agree on how to get it in the water. This quagmire, which has entrenched the Island Rover Foundation, the town of Freeport and majority owner Carter Becker for well over a decade, remains stagnant. 

According to Peter Joseph, town manager, officials hoped for some progress in June, when a suit contesting the legality of Becker’s ownership of the boat was scheduled to go to court, but then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the court system and there has been little to no change since. Now, they hope for a January court date at the earliest, but even that is up in the air, he said. 

Meanwhile, Becker continues to make incremental progress in his attempts to launch the boat.

Signs voicing support for the Island Rover have appeared at the end of Lower Flying Point Road. Courtesy of Twain Braden

“Every week, every month, every year, every quarter I’m making movement and progress forward,” he said. “Every time I put something in before the town they ask for more (and) I’m continuing to jump the hurdles they put before me.” 

An application for a building permit for a launch site is still pending as officials continue to have questions that need answers. 

The ship’s saga started back in 1992 as a passion project for Harold Arndt, who built the vessel from recycled Navy steel in his backyard over the course of two decades, with the intent that it would eventually be used as an educational tool. 

To help fund this venture, Arndt started the Island Rover Foundation in 2001 as a nonprofit, which changed the Rover’s status from a backyard project to a commercial entity, and therefore violated Freeport’s land use ordinances. 

Thus started a years-long battle between Arndt, the town of Freeport and now Carter Becker, 75% percent owner of the ship that spans from 2004 today. 

The zoning problem first came before the town council in 2004 and again in 2010, when officials extended clemency to Arndt, giving him until the start of 2013 to complete the boat and get it out to sea.

Then in 2014, when the boat was still not seaworthy, Arndt agreed to the terms of a court order stipulating the ship be removed from the site by the fall of 2016, and if it were not, he would give the boat and the foundation’s land over to the town of Freeport, town manager Peter Joseph said. But again, the deadline came and went.

Justice Thomas Warren found that the foundation was in violation of the court order and was subject to a fine of $500 per day, as long as it remained in the nonconforming zone. 

It was moved a short distance down Bucknam Road, a private right of way. The town contends this is still not a conforming location but The Times Record reported at the time that contempt fines were not paid or enforced because the foundation believes Bucknam Road is a conforming location.

The boat was then given until November 2017, pending permit approval. However, the Freeport Town Council denied an overweight moving permit needed to move the vessel from the property off Flying Point Road, due to concerns over the logistics and property lines.

Then, in July 2018, Warren ruled that The Island Rover Foundation must pay the town $36,331 to account for the town’s legal fees. Joseph and Island Rover legal counsel could not be reached to confirm whether the money has been paid. Becker is not subject to the fines because he was not named in the Sept. 2014 order and was not found in contempt.

The town has since filed a second suit, initially slated for a hearing in June, that the transfer of the boat to Becker violates the 2014 order, a move Becker contends is just another attempt to derail the project. 

As it stands, Becker has a launch site picked out and just needs the building permit approved – from that point he estimates it will take another two years at least to actually get the Island Rover in the water. 

Joseph said previously that the town’s ultimate goal is not to continue legal action, but to get the Island Rover to a conforming location, whether it be in storage, on an appropriate lot or in the water. 

“The violation that exists is curable by removing the boat from the property … to a conforming location,” he said earlier this month. “It could be a boat yard, in the water or beyond freeport.” Doing so would satisfy the 2014 court order.

Twain Braden, an attorney representing the Island Rover Foundation, likened the town’s involvement to that of a “two headed dragon,” in which one side is trying to take it to trial, while the other side has been working with Becker to get the permitting done. 

“(Becker) is moving as quickly as he can (but) he’s dependent on separate state and municipal entities,” Braden said. “We’re not in the driver’s chair.” 

The process has been too long and drawn out, he added, and the entire litigation process has “broken (Ardnt’s) spirit.”

Becker agreed. 

“It’s taking so long it’s painful,” he said. “It’s killing where I was supposed to be putting my efforts at my age. It’s pushed other projects back.” 

The one bright side, they said, is a growing interest in the ship. 

“There’s a growing grass roots interest, irrespective of the ugliness with the town,” Braden said, and a few signs have popped up on Lower Flying Point Road voicing support to “launch the Island Rover.” 

“Our boat, our neighborhood, looking to teach new sailors around the world,” one sign, bearing the signature of the class of 2021.

In December, a class of Freeport students visited the boat on a field trip to learn about the vessel and what it will take to get it in the water. 

“They had a hell of a good time,” Becker said. 

It’s been exciting to see the interest and to finally have the Island Rover used for the educational missions she was intended for, he said, even if it has to be from land. 

“(Kids) are our future,” he said. “They need all the help we can give them. This is a weird environment they’re growing up in,” he said, so the question needs to remain “how can we do this?”

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