The York River as seen in this Portsmouth Herald file photo. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — Kittery became the third town to support the York River Wild and Scenic designation as the Town Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution in a pivotal move.

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

The South Berwick Town Council has the item on its agenda for Tuesday night. On Nov. 6, despite much controversy, York voters approved the 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. Local support needs to be demonstrated before Congress considers the future designation.

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The vote in Kittery took place less than two weeks after the York River Study Committee held a workshop with the Town Council, fielding questions and addressing controversy that popped up in York, where a group of residents were concerned about federal authorities taking control of the river, and the plan infringing on private property rights. But committee members were adamant in pushing back.

Supporters of the plan said federal designation will ensure the York River will remain preserved and well-cared for even as invasive species, sea level rise and other environmental threats chart an uncertain future.

Kittery resident Sean Harris asked the council if it would consider delaying its vote, so another workshop could be held with landowners affected by the designation. He had concerns the watershed itself could change in 20 years, possibly moving up onto private property, and what that would mean for management. He was also worried about costs.

[With voter approvals in York and Eliot, river protection plan faces new scrutiny]

“I hate to get into any in-depth accounting into this but there will be direct and indirect costs with this,” he said. “There is a whole lot of questions.”

Council Chairwoman Judy Spiller, who served as the Kittery representative on the York River Study Committee, said when the process began, every resident in the watershed received a notice that outlined the steps “encouraging people to stay in touch.”

Spiller said there is “no federal taking of land, no forced public access, no change in land-use.”

Councilor Charles Denault said he was initially skeptical of the proposal and “saw it as another attempt of the federal government getting involved.” But, as the process evolved, Denault said a lot of his questions were answered and now thinks “we’re on the right track with this. I will support this.”

[More than 2,300 more homes could be built in the York River watershed, study finds]

When reached for comment Tuesday, York River Committee Chairman Chuck Ott said, “To see the towns come together on this is very gratifying. It is our purpose to pull people together to share ideas, concerns, to work things out as neighbors in order to take good care of the river. This is just another step in that direction.”

Ott said he believed the South Berwick Town Council would discuss the plan Tuesday night, but not necessarily take a vote on it just yet.

If South Berwick lends its support, a formal stewardship committee will be formed after the river is incorporated into the Wild and Scenic program.