KITTERY, Maine — It was standing room only in council chambers on Monday night when residents weighed in on two petitions trying to save the Wood Island Life Saving Station in Portsmouth Harbor from demolition.
The petitions were submitted by the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, a nonprofit organization seeking ownership of the island to save it.
About 850 residents signed each petition calling for a special election, but both were rejected unanimously by the Kittery Town Council on Monday based on legal advice. One asked voters to support the transfer ownership of the island from the town to WILSSA. The second would have prevented the council from spending any money on the property.
Although the petitions were rejected, most council members said they would support posing a non-binding referendum question to voters in November based on the overwhelming support from residents for saving the station.
In March, the Wood Island Advisory Committee formed by the town council recommended demolishing the dilapidated building, leading to the petitions.
The recommendation was made after two years of negotiations between WILSSA and WIAC broke down.
The council has not taken any action on the recommendation.
More than 100 people filled council chambers, with at least two people raveling from as far as Keene, to show their support for saving the station, during a public hearing on the petitions.
Sam Reid, president and founder of WILSSA, told the council the organization is trying to give a “gift” to the town by offering to restore the building, but others did not see it as such.
Town council vice-chairman and WIAC member Jeff Pelletier said WILSSA is making the issue about ownership.
“We agree on every other point other than ownership. It was very frustrating to go meet with members of WILSSA and try to get past that one piece,” Pelletier said. “If you want to give a gift to the town, then give it. Don’t give a gift with one hand and reach into my pocket with the other.”
Some residents said the town has had 40 years to save the building and did nothing. The property was turned over to the town by the National Parks Service in 1972 with a stipulation that it remain safe and open for public access.
Kittery resident Jan Lamont-Rodonets said she is in favor of the town having use and perhaps ownership of the island, but is not sure the town of Kittery will take care of it.
Ann Grinnell, a 33-year resident of Kittery and a member of WIAC for the past five years, said WILSSA and the majority of residents in Kittery want the same thing — to save the station, but she believes most residents want to see it remain public property.
She said that, on July 3, members of WIAC met with members of WILSSA, including Reid, seeking agreement on the issues and to work together to restore the exterior of the building, but said it did not work.
“We want to save the island. That group wants to save the island, but they’ve got to own the island to do it, and I think that’s a really bad move for Kittery,” Grinnell said.
Following Grinnell, WIAC member Kent Allyn submitted his resignation from the committee, stating that he did not think WILSSA was willing to negotiate at all.
Following the hearing, Reid said he is pleased that the debate has moved toward restoration and away from demolition, and if Kittery wants to commit to restoring the building, WILSSA would “post the parade.”
It remains to be seen what the next step will be.