Owls Head harbor as seen from the current point of public access.

OWLS HEAD, Maine ― Richard Carver brims with excitement, and a bit of disbelief, when he talks about a soon-to-be constructed $400,000 municipal pier that will ensure the public has access to the town’s harbor for generations to come.

“Isn’t it amazing? It all came together. I had my doubts that it would, ” he said Wednesday while walking along a waterfront piece property owned by the town.

Carver is a retired fisherman and a member of the town’s harbor committee who’s been involved in the decades-long push to ensure public access to the harbor. The project is finally taking shape after the Owls Head Planning Board gave final approval for the pier this week.

The Owls Head project is an example of how many towns along Maine’s coast are trying to preserve access for working waterfront and public-use purposes amid pressure from developers. Maine’s coast is more than 3,500 miles long, but only 12 percent of it is publicly owned.

“Public access on the coast is disappearing quickly,” Maine Coast Heritage Trust project manager Steve Walker said.

Carver said the project will hopefully be completed by the spring of 2021. Work on a new public parking lot adjacent to the road travelers take to the Owls Head Lighthouse is underway. A pathway will connect the parking lot to the pier on the waterfront. The land in front of the pier will be kept as open space, so the view of the harbor will not be obstructed, and a trail system will be developed on the property, Carver said.

The pier itself, which will be constructed by Prock Marine Co. will be 5 feet wide, connected by an ADA-compliant ramp to floats on the water. There also will be a kayak stabilizer attached to the right side of the floats allowing paddle crafts to enter the water more easily.

Owls Head officials first realized they had a problem with public access to the waterfront in 1965, when they petitioned the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the notoriously shallow harbor. Since federal money was used for the dredging, the town had to ensure that anyone could access the harbor, Carver said.

With no town-owned pier to provide access to the harbor, officials struck a deal with a private business owner to allow the public access to a 3-foot wide pathway along the side of his working wharf. The 50-year lease the town signed permitted residents, tourists and others to access the path until the mid-2010s, but it wasn’t an ideal situation.

Unless you know where you’re going, the pathway along the wharf isn’t obvious. Since this is a dock where fishermen operate, it can also be intimidating to dodge forklifts and navigate around stacks of lobster traps.

“It’s not convenient for everybody. You can be in the way going down there [while people are working] and it can be intimidating to some people,” Carver said.

As the end of the 50-year agreement approached, Carver said the town tried to negotiate another long-term lease with the business, which had changed hands multiple times. But no agreement materialized and since 2016, the town has only had short-term leases to ensure public access on the wharf.

“Through this, the town realized that it was better off for the town to have its own pier rather than to have to work with another business dock,” Carver said.

While there was widespread support for the town to preserve public waterfront access it would take time and a lot of effort on the part of the selectboard, the harbor committee, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and state and federal agencies to make it happen, Carver said.

In 2016, the town purchased an acre of waterfront property for $305,000. Maine Coast Heritage Trust then gifted the town a piece of abutting property. This was followed by a $200,000 grant from the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund, which the town had to contribute another $200,000 to receive.

After the funding for a pier was secured, the plans then went to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for approval. The planning’s board approval of the project on Monday night was the last hurdle the project had to go through.

Monroe Island, located in Owls Head harbor, is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. While the municipal pier will mean greater access to the harbor for fishermen and residents, it will also be a boon for tourists according to Walker.

“We saw this [pier] as a fantastic opportunity for us to then have a public launching point to shoot across to Monroe. It seemed like the ideal win-win,” Walker said. “The Owls Head project will be a great economic engine too, because people who come for just a few hours to go to the lighthouse can now plan a daylong excursion.”

Carver is mystified that after years of planning, indefinite public access to Owls Head harbor is finally within reach.

“To think that the town, a bunch of fishermen, could write up and get a grant of this magnitude, it still amazes me,” Carver said. “So this means that anyone can do it, any community.”