Friday, March 1, 2024

Governments buying Islands

USA: Maine Government Moves Closer to Preventing Development of Historic Island

Proposals to designate a historically-significant private island in Maine as a protected area were unanimously approved as plans to prevent the development of House Island gain momentum.

  • Portland’s Planning Board has voted unanimously to designate House Island with historical protections, as plans to prevent the island’s development gain momentum
  • The decision is a considerable spanner in the works for the island’s new owners, who purchased the 24-acre island with the hope of developing it
  • The island forms home to several Civil War remains and once served as “Portland’s Ellis Island” – the first stop for immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States
House Island - Photo by CNN Money

House Island – Photo by CNN Money

The future of a historically significant island in Maine looks secure, after the Portland Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend to the City Council that House Island receives official designation as a local historic district.

House Island – “Portland’s Ellis Island”

The private island in question – 24-acre House Island, is of considerable historical significance, having played an important role in the American Civil War and – for three decades during the 20th century – having served as a U.S. Immigration Service Quarantine Station – a move that gave rise to the island’s nickname of “Portland’s Ellis Island.”

After six decades of single-family ownership, the island was sold for USD 2.5 million to Michael Scarks, a Portland-based developer, earlier this year, triggering fears that the 24-acre island would lose its historic character at the expense of another development.

Historical Designation Moves Forward

Upon getting wind of Scarks’ plans for development, the non-profit organization Greater Portland Landmarks was quick to submit letters to the city’s Historic Preservation Board, emphasizing in particular the need to protect the remains of Fort Scammel – the only Casco Bay Fort to exchange fire with the British during the Civil War – as the most important reason for action.

After listening to the residents’ case for protecting the island, the Portland Planning Board voted to support the decision. Having received the support of the Board, the decision will now be sent to the City Council for final approval.

Future in Doubt for New Owners

House Island's Historic Fort - Photo by

House Island’s Historic Fort – Photo by

If the decision to layer the island with a historical designation is approved, Scarks will face considerable challenges when it comes to realizing his plans for House Island.

Arthur Fink, a former member of the Portland Planning Board, explained that given the historical significance of the island, the designation is entirely appropriate and will simply help guide – not impede – any development on the island. “Where else in Maine or Portland can we find so much history in one place?” he asked.

Although renovation work and development work is – strictly speaking – not prohibited within designated historic districts, a historical designation will throw further scrutiny on any plans, adding further delays to Scarks’ construction plans and – in a worst case scenario – potentially derailing his development proposal entirely.

Divided Opinions Amongst Local Residents

Whilst many Casco Bay residents were in support of the decision to layer the island with a historic designation, a vocal group opposed the decision, highlighting Scarks’ enviable track record when it comes to developing historical properties in Maine and questioning the timing of the proposal.

“The petition to designate House Island as a historic district is totally unnecessary and shortsighted,” wrote one concerned resident. “The new owner has no plans to remove or alter Fort Scammel, nor does he have plans for a high-density real estate development. This developer has an outstanding record … of doing good things in the city.”

“I would be appalled if I purchased property like that and, all of a sudden, out of left field comes forward a letter saying this property should be designated as a historic district,” added local business owner Harry McCann.

The former owner of House Island, Harold Cushing, echoed this sentiment, questioning why the issue of historical designation had never cropped up during his own 60 year tenure as island owner and revealing that both the City of Portland and the State of Maine had previously turned down an opportunity to purchase the island for just one dollar.

Stay tuned to Private Island News for further updates regarding the status of House Island, Maine.

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