KITTERY, Maine — A small island in Portsmouth Harbor and the old life-saving station that adorns it are generating a lot of interest from near and far as the Kittery Town Council prepares to decide its fate.
From 1908 through the 1960s, Wood Island was home to a life-saving station, the predecessors to the United States Coast Guard, and although the building has undergone some changes since it was first built, Kittery residents have become used to seeing the icon from their windows, forts and roadways, and so have visitors.
But the old station is decrepit, falling apart and full of asbestos.
In 1972, it was turned over to the town of Kittery from the National Parks Service with a stipulation that it remain free and open to the public.
The deed also stipulates that it cannot be sold or transferred to anyone other than another government entity.
But a small nonprofit group in Kittery thinks it is possible, and is asking voters as well as the parks service if they will approve transferring the island to them.
The Wood Island Life Saving Station Association (WILSSA) was created about two years ago by longtime summer resident Sam Reid.
On June 24, the council agreed to schedule a public hearing for July 8 at 7 p.m. to address two petitions submitted by Reid.
Both were signed by more than 850 Kittery residents.
But a newly received legal opinion may nullify the need for a hearing.
According to the opinion, the petitions submitted are not legal, and therefore a referendum cannot be held.
One petition asks if voters approve the town transferring rights to the island to WILSSA, pending approval from the National Parks Service. The second restricts the town from expending any money on the station for removal or renovation.
Jeffrey Pelletier is the vice chairman of the council and has served on the Wood Island Advisory Committee for the last two years.
He said based on the legal opinion received, he does not think the petitions will result in a referendum vote.
"My understanding is when you write an ordinance you can't say the town can't do something," Pelletier said.
Reid believes the petitions are valid and should be brought to voters through a special election.
"The idea that these petitions are illegal is inaccurate and certainly, if necessary, we will defend them," Reid said. "It's important that the town council listen to the residents of Kittery, and the residents of Kittery on this matter are very clear — they don't want money spent on the building, they want a special election, and they want to transfer the property to a nonprofit."
He said if the problem is language, it can be remedied without throwing the petitions out altogether.
Not everyone thinks the building should be saved.
Two years ago, the town council formed the Wood Island Advisory Committee to come up with the best option for the property. In March, the committee recommended demolishing the building at a cost to taxpayers of about $250,000.
"When the parks service presented the property to the town and the agreement was signed, it never had anything to do with the building. It was all about the property and making sure it is safe and free to public access," Kittery Town Council chairman George Dow said.
Pelletier said he has been trying to negotiate with Reid and WILSSA to come up with an agreement that is amenable to everyone.
"And that is to restore the seascape of Wood Island against the backdrop of Pepperell Cove. People want to look out the window, out the side of their boat, or from Portsmouth, and see this profile on the Atlantic coast," Pelletier said.
Under his plan, WILSSA could wrap the building against the elements, lead a Brownfields grant application to deal with the asbestos, and restore the exterior of the building to look like it always has.
WILSSA has received a cost estimate of about $350,000 to restore the exterior of the building.
The rest of Pelletier's plan would allow WILSSA to bring the interior of the building to a structurally sound condition, allow them to replace the seawall, and have the town appropriate a sum of money to the capital improvement plan to provide for the ongoing maintenance and repair of the exterior of the building for years to come.
"I think it's a winning plan, but I haven't yet convinced WILSSA to go along with that," Pelletier said.
Nor has he gotten the approval of the town council, Reid said.
The council does not meet again until July 8, the night the public hearing is scheduled.
WILSSA has asked the council to move the hearing to another room in expectation of a large crowd.
People from as far as Keene, like Steve Lindsey, have turned out at previous hearings to show support for saving the station.
Lindsey, a former member of the Coast Guard, said he remembers when they tore down the old life-saving station at North Hampton in 1973, and does not want to see Wood Island suffer the same fate.