Karen Arsenault, left, and Jennifer Hunter hold signs on Election Day in York urging passage of a local referendum question supporting a protection plan for the York River. Credit: Shawn St. Hilaire | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Attention shifts to Kittery and South Berwick now that a measure passed last week in both York and Eliot to designate the York River as a national Partnership Wild and Scenic River.

The York River Study Committee will meet with Kittery and South Berwick officials, seeking their votes to approve designation — an important step before the measure begins its journey through the halls of Congress, which also needs to approve the designation.

The study committee is meeting with the Kittery Town Council Wednesday, Nov. 14 in a workshop session at 5:30 p.m. The council is not expected to vote on the measure, but is likely to place it on an upcoming agenda. The South Berwick Town Council has not scheduled a meeting, but is expected to do so in upcoming weeks.

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All four towns are in the York River watershed, although the lion’s share is in York, and study committee members hail from those communities. On Nov. 6, York voters approved a stewardship plan and designation by a vote of 4,765 to 2,795. In Eliot, the vote was 2,501 to 933. The legislative bodies in both towns are the voters; in Kittery and South Berwick, the town councils make the decision.

The Kittery and South Berwick votes are “the critical next steps” toward designation, said James MacCartney of the National Park Service, the staff member assigned to oversee the York River process. “We’re so very much interested in what happens in those two communities.”

York River Study Committee Chairman Chuck Ott said he’s sure the two towns “are going to look at how their neighbors voted. When you put York and Eliot into the mix, that’s a huge part of the watershed and the river segments. I think last week’s votes would enhance Kittery and South Berwick’s sense of confidence that this would be a good thing. I’m certainly hoping so.”

A positive four-town vote is a critical next step in the process — the NPS report to Congress, said MacCartney.

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The NPS reports on the river’s eligibility to be in the Partnership Wild and Scenic program. This includes what the study committee determined to be the “outstandingly remarkable values” of the river: its natural resources, its archaeological and historic resources and its use for recreation and as a working waterfront. “It’s clear there are outstanding resources on this river,” said MacCartney, and he expects that to be reflected in the report.

The report also looks at the river’s suitability to be in the program. This includes, in pertinent part, the support for designation in the local communities. He said he considers the 64 percent positive vote in York and the 73 percent vote in Eliot to be “a strong endorsement” of the program.

Once the other two communities vote, the report will be filed with Congress, likely early next year, said MacCartney. Then the action shifts to Congress, which could take the better part of 2019 to act on a measure to include the river under the Wild and Scenic River Act.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who both championed the study bill, say they stand ready to introduce legislation.

“Voters in York and Eliot have sent a powerful statement that the York River is worth protecting as the critical resource it is — environmentally, historically and economically,” said Pingree. “The study committee made a powerful case for why the river deserves designation and how communities would benefit — namely bringing in more federal resources for conservation without giving up local control in any way.”

She said she “will watch closely to see what Kittery and South Berwick decide,” and then “I stand ready to introduce and advocate for legislation in the new Congress to make it official.”

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A spokesperson for King said he “has monitored the status of local efforts to address the possibility of a wild and scenic designation for the York River, and appreciates the diligent work of the York River Study Committee in this regard.” King “looks forward to working directly with the local communities to determine next steps once each town has completed its process,” said the spokesperson.

Ott said he is seeking guidance about how the committee should proceed during the next year. “It’s delicate. You don’t want to delegate authority that isn’t given to you and at the same time you don’t want to abdicate responsibility,” he said. “In the interim, you don’t want to fall asleep and not get things done with the congressional delegation either.”

If all goes according to plan, and that involves a number of ifs, a stewardship committee would be formed after the river is incorporated into the Wild and Scenic program. The vote in York was hard fought, and several river property owners raised concerns for their land. Ott said he’d like to see the Board of Selectmen, which will make appointments to the committee, “think very carefully about the appointments in light of the concerns people have.”

“For the stewardship committee to get off to a good start, it should reflect the legitimate interests in the management of the river,” he said. “I would like to see a committee that will have the trust of the widest spectrum of the community as possible, and also have a diversity of voices that, through dialogue, can work things out.”

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