Pollution, tourism and the future of Monhegan Island

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). July 12, 2002.

"Sustainability and quality of life are at stake."
Photo by Gary Stanley

Monhegan is one of three Maine islands where raw sewage is allowed by law to be dumped untreated into the ocean. The harbor smells, and in the summer children develop the skin disease impetigo "from the filthy beach conditions," according to resident Alice Boynton. A proposal to alter the uses of a waterside commercial property has sparked a new round of debate about pollution, tourism and the future of the popular island. "Sustainability and quality of life are at stake," asserted Peter Boehmer, founder and editor of Monhegan Commons website.

The Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) voted on July 10 to have a full airing of the issues at a public meeting. The session will take place on Aug. 13 at the island schoolhouse. Monhegan is an unorganized plantation and consequently falls under LURC’s planning and zoning jurisdiction.

Even regulation by the state agency figures into the current controversy. A poll of islanders a few years ago found that most believe that LURC’s oversight and enforcement are inadequate on Monhegan, 12 miles offshore. A majority favor developing their own comprehensive plan and zoning and building regulations. LURC would allow for that initiative if Monhegan’s rules were stricter, and the restaurant issue seems to be begging the question again.

Monhegan is one of three Maine islands where raw sewage is allowed by law to be dumped untreated into the ocean.

What has triggered the latest round of debate is the transfer of a development permit approved by the LURC staff last April. It authorized John and Winifred Murdock to operate "The Periwinkle" restaurant and to convert four upstairs employee dormitory rooms to three rental apartments and one employee apartment. A condition of the permit was that the Murdocks, who recently bought the property, would have to obtain a revised wastewater discharge license from Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The staff received 57 letters from islanders appealing the issuance of a permit and asking for a public session. The Monhegan Planning Board, which serves as an advisory panel to LURC on development applications, was divided on Murdock’s proposal. Two of the five members abstained from voting. The majority of two against it said that the proposal would exacerbate harbor pollution, and they opposed the partial change of use. Islanders Susan McDonough, a planning board member, and Pamela Rollinger, organized a petition drive to pressure LURC to reconsider the permit approval.

In a letter to LURC, John Murdock rebutted arguments against his proposal and pointed out that the restaurant "is a business that has failed twice in 10 years. Many people on the island feel that I am doing a service to the island by cleaning up this derelict building in the center of town," he asserted.

Peter Boehmer responded to Murdock that the business had failed because of "over-capitalization. The building was abandoned not so much because of its quality of construction or lack of it, as it was over-valued," he contended. Boehmer told Murdock he was sorry "you paid more for the building than its present usage can support, but I am not willing to have ‘change in use’ make up the difference [because it] transfers the cost to the general community by the lowering of the ‘quality of life.’"

The property was, like many harbor lots, the site of a fish house and storage and generator buildings in years past. It also had a building used as a restaurant before LURC was created in the early 70s. Consequently, the restaurant was "grandfathered," meaning its continued use was legally protected. The lot itself has about 22 feet of frontage on the Atlantic and 65 feet of frontage along Main Street.

In time, the business ceased operating, but in 1990, Ray Remick Jr. obtained a LURC permit to reopen the eatery as "The Careless Navigator," constructed two decks onto the restaurant and connected the restaurant and the storage/restroom buildings. A second story addition over the restaurant was allowed to have four dormitory rooms for up to 12 employees. Restaurant seating capacity was limited to 114 people.

Subsequent to Remick, Marion Chioffi and Luke Church took over running the business as "The Periwinkle." DEP issued a waste discharge license to the couple in December, 1998, and it allowed an indoor seating capacity of 90 people, a maximum outdoor seating of 40 and took into account the employees using the dorm rooms. The license allowed seasonal use only between May 1 and Oct. 30, and total maximum volume of wastewater flow permitted was 3,300 gallons per day.

The Murdocks, who run the bed and breakfast called "Shining Sails," bought the restaurant property from Remick this spring and applied to LURC to alter the uses. Their application to LURC met the criteria for approval and would not adversely affect the environment, the staff concluded. The planned reduced seating in "The Periwinkle" would "more than offset any increase in wastewater flow from the upstairs apartment," the staff said. DEP amended the wastewater license.

In the background of the restaurant issue is the 1989 opinion poll of islanders on the subject of growth and the 1996 Human Impact Committee Survey. The results made it clear that year-round and summer residents don’t want Monhegan to change from what it is now. They rank as the number one threat the availability of water and power and see waste treatment and summer overcrowding from tourism as other big problems.

LURC received 11 letters from islanders opposing the Murdock’s change of use proposal. In a May 23 letter, Corlis Carroll opposed the permit because it "takes away a full-service restaurant with staff housing and replaces it with a new seasonal inn/hotel for short-term, summer visitors." It would have "enormous and significant impact on our community," she said.

Carroll also objected to the lack of "a clear plan" for dealing with sewage disposal on the island. Monhegan and two islands off Stonington -- St. Helena Island and Devil’s -- are allowed no treatment of discharges from buildings in existence on Oct. 1, 1976. Five other islands are allowed less than full treatment.

Sherman Stanley and Robert Bracy told LURC they own the property with a variance for the sewer line of "The Periwinkle" to cross and had decided not to renew it as the proposed changes stand. (The Murdocks subsequently relocated the outfall pipe on their own lot.) "There is on certain days in the summer, a distinct smell, and you can see the sewer flowing in the harbor and around the beaches," according to Stanley and Bracy. "There are people on the island with concern for their kids swimming in these waters."

Stanley and Bracy also said the proposal would further strain the island’s water supply. "The water supply isn’t enough for the [number] of people here in the summer now, and usually it runs out sometime in August, leaving people without water," they said.

There’s no way to keep increasing the summer guests on Monhegan "without having an adverse effect on this small ecosystem."
National Geographic photo

Stanley and Bracey concluded that there’s no way to keep increasing the summer guests on Monhegan "without having an adverse effect on this small ecosystem." It just puts more strain on the town’s finite water source, they said. Monhegan has a single fresh water aquifer.

Peter Boehmer pointed out to LURC in a May 24 letter that Monehgan’s "history, culture and appeal is mostly based on lobstering." That’s why in 1998, over 90 percent of the island residents testified before state regulators on hearings redefining Monhegan’s lobstering rules, he said. "We did so to protect the sustainability of what defines us and creates our quality of life."

"It is my notion that we are at a . . . defining moment in life of the Monhegan experience," Borhmer said. "I maintain that the partial conversion of ‘The Periwinkle’ is analogous to Garrett Hadin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. The gist of Hardin’s thesis was that adding just one more head of cattle to the commons would lead to the demise of the community good, even though it might directly benefit the herdsmen.

Likewise, Monhegan fishermen won’t take "short lobsters or breeding females because while such would result in the immediate short term gain of the violator, it would do so at the cost to the fleet as a whole," he said. "The applicants stand to profit from changing part of "The Periwinkle" from restaurant to apartments. However, that gain will come at lessening the quality of life for many Monheganites, of both winter and summer communities," he predicted.

Monhegan is in its best economic times in history, Boehmer said, "both in the lobstering and tourist communities. We are a success and sought after. To permit needless and/or incremental expansion is to risk all of that," he said.

John Murdock, who has lived on Monhegan for 25 years, said in an open letter to the opponents that he first suggested to the planning board that he would run the restaurant as a takeout, using paper products and having no restrooms in order to reduce the water usage. "But people have to go to the bathroom someplace so at this time we do plan to keep the restroom open," he said. "If we did not have a restroom most likely the majority of our customers would go to the public restroom, back to their room at the Trailing Yew, Island Inn or their house along the shore where they all flush to Monhegan harbor."

Murdock said the bathrooms at his establishment will have new low-volume flush toilets. "No matter how you do the math . . . 12 people flush and shower more and have more waste than 10 people," he said.

All of the hotels and most of the houses along the shore discharge into the harbor. "I think a good starting point for the harbor and the island would be to get the overboard lines down to the low-water mark where the permits require them to be," Murdock said. "If there is more concern, perhaps we should look into possibly stopping unlicensed overboard discharges and seasonal discharges that are being used year-round."

Murdock concluded that if converting dorm rooms to rentals is ruining Monhegan’s way of life, "I wasn’t aware that that way of life was dependent on there being an out of business, rat-infested building with piles of trash all around it, right in the center of town. While it was in operation, it was a constant source of disturbances, violence, noise complaints and constable calls," he said. "Not my idea of the ‘Monhegan way of life.’"

Who and what defines the Monhegan "way of life?"
"Last Light Over Monhegan" By John A. Morrow

In the next issue of the New Monhegan Press, Boehmer said he will refocus attention on the "problematic" tension between the island and LURC, whose regulated territory is mostly timberland owned by large corporations. "The issues that befall the timberlands and those of this island have little in common," he said.

In the past, when trying to decide whether to develop their own comprehensive plan, Boehmer said the argument against it was Monhegan’s small size, "and it would be difficult to deny our neighbor what they might wish to do with their land or to report them to the state if they violated the law." He questioned that reasoning today considering "the past success of the lobstering community in policing its own fleet without the help of the state."

LURC and the Monhegan Planning Board are compatible about 50 percent of the time, Boehmer estimated. Noting the "at odds" situation now over the restaurant permit, he acknowledged frustration at what to do. Boehmer favored continuing with LURC "for the time being," but he said that the local planning board should have equal power with the commission on approving or rejecting development permits.