The relationship between the seasonal residents of Roque Island and Jonesport town officials has soured over the past several years — and a land-based fish farm proposal is making it worse.
Through legal filings, the Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corporation has opposed financial and economic measures that Jonesport town officials have pursued or supported. It has appealed the island’s property tax bills, and also gone to court to keep seaweed harvesters off their shores.
These decisions — and whether Kingfish Maine should be given approval for building a $110 million dollar fish farm in the town — have considerable economic implications for Jonesport and surrounding towns where good-paying jobs are in short supply. The corporation opposes the fish farm.
“We’re really getting sick of it,” said Billy Milliken, chairman of the town’s selectboard.
Protect Downeast, a not-for-profit group created by the corporation to oppose the Kingfish project, has hired attorneys to oppose it at local planning board meetings. The group also endorsed the idea of enacting a temporary aquaculture ban in Jonesport, which Milliken pointed out was rejected by local voters by a 2-to-1 margin.
Still, he added, the group “continues to get people worked up with inaccurate information” about how the fish farm will affect the area.
“We’re tired of this friction Protect Downeast is causing,” he said.
The corporation consists of more than 100 members, all loosely related to each other. The members visit Washington County in the summer with family and other guests, taking turns at the five houses located on the 1,300-acre Roque Island and six smaller islands to the immediate south and east, all located within the town of Jonesport.
The group has cited environmental concerns in strongly opposing the Kingfish plan to buy land and build a large fish farm overlooking Chandler Bay, which separates Roque Island from the rest of the town. The farm would draw in water from the bay for its fish, treat it, and then pump it back out, but with nitrogen levels that project opponents say could harm the bay’s water quality.
Town officials — including Milliken, a real estate agent who represented the previous owner in the sale of the property — have voiced informal support for the proposal, which is still under review by the town’s planning board. They say it could bring needed economic development to the shrinking town, and help provide jobs as the lobster fishing industry loses its dominance because of climate change and increasing legal protections for whales.
Washington County has long had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and Jonesport’s high school enrollment has dropped by 50 percent — from roughly 130 to 65 this year — since the 1970s, Milliken has said. The county also has struggled with drug addiction, which has led to high overdose rates and a recent spike in violent crime — all things that could be better addressed if there were more good jobs available, he said.
“Our population has imploded,” Milliken said. It’s dropped from roughly 3,500 residents in the decade after World War II, when there were several sardine canning factories locally, to around 1,400 today.
“Working families are challenged,” he said. “We’re in real trouble. We need real jobs.”
The relationship between the corporation and town has long been contentious, said Dwight Alley, a former Jonesport selectman who serves on the town’s economic development committee. The corporation “always” objects to its property tax bills and is working against the town’s efforts to boost its fortunes, he said.
“It’s a very sore spot for me,” Alley said. “If they had their choice, nothing would happen in Jonesport economically.”
But Ariana Fischer, an interior designer in Portland and chairman of the family corporation’s board, said she and her fellow island owners want what is best for Jonesport and the surrounding area. They want to protect the environment and encourage sustainable growth, such as small-scale aquaculture that won’t degrade the natural resources so many area residents rely on.
“That’s what we care about,” Fischer said. “It’s preserving and conserving. As much as people say we aren’t part of the community there, we are part of the community. It has nothing to do with keeping Jonesport from evolving.”
Still, apart from their legal filings, the owners of Roque Island seem to be largely unknown in Jonesport and surrounding towns.
Albert Carver, a resident of neighboring Beals and owner of local seafood distributor A.C. Inc., said he’s lived in the area his whole life and never met any of Roque Island’s owners. The primary way they are known to people who live in the area, he said, is by their reputation.
“Anything that would benefit the community they don’t want to see,” Carver said. “And I don’t know why.”
The corporation was founded in 1940 by descendants of Joseph Peabody, a wealthy shipping merchant from Massachusetts who bought the island more than 200 years ago in the early 1800s. Members of the extended family who have spent time on Roque Island include Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of the well-known Boston art museum, and Robert Augustus Gardner Monks, the wealthy financier and former U.S. Senate candidate from Cape Elizabeth.
In documents filed last fall with state environmental regulators as part of an unsuccessful appeal of the state’s decision to approve permits to Kingfish, Fischer said nine generations of the extended family have been “enjoying, protecting and preserving the pristine environment” of Roque and the surrounding islands.
“Altogether there are over 400 direct descendants of Joseph Peabody, including their spouses, partners, relatives and guests who use the island virtually year-round,” Fischer wrote.
In recent years, members of the corporation and their guests have traveled to and from the island via the neighboring town of Roque Bluffs, where they have a pier and an adjacent parking area. Visitors to the island can drive from the pier to the larger town of Machias in roughly 15 minutes, which is about half the time it takes to drive from Roque Bluffs to Jonesport.
Jade Moody, the town clerk in Roque Bluffs, said the corporation owns the two properties that it uses for parking and registers its two boats. As far as she knows, the corporation has never challenged its tax bills there. She does not know its members by name, but the people who come to register the boats are always friendly, she said.
Between six and 10 people live on Roque Island year round as paid caretakers to operate an organic farm and to maintain the buildings and property, Fischer said. For decades, the archipelago has hosted numerous environmental scientific studies and surveys and, in recent years, aquaculture operations for mussels and kelp.
Fighting the taxes
The strained relationship between Roque Island’s owners and Jonesport dates back at least to 2014, when the corporation sought a property tax abatement from the town and then took the town to court. Much of the land owned by the corporation is classified as open space or as farmland. That qualifies those properties for reduced tax rates, but in 2014 a revaluation by the town resulted in a 52 percent increase in the town’s assessed valuation of Roque Island.
In its lawsuit, the corporation argued that the valuations for the houses on the island were unfairly high.
But in 2017, the state supreme court sided with Jonesport. The town successfully argued that it costs more to transport materials and workers to offshore islands so the houses are worth more than if they were built on the mainland.
The corporation continued to dispute its tax bills in subsequent years. Last year the dispute went back to the state supreme court again — and ended up with a different result.
The court looked at the dispute more broadly the second time around. It ruled that despite the island’s higher construction costs, the town’s assessments for building values on Roque Island were much higher than their actual market values. It also said the town under-counted the island’s amount of farmland, which is taxed at a lower rate than other uses.
With the 2021 ruling, the town’s assessed value of Roque Island decreased from more than $4 million to less than $3 million, saving the owners tens of thousands of dollars in their cumulative annual tax bill.
Milliken said he disagrees with last year’s court decision, but that the town doesn’t have the money to keep fighting off the corporation’s legal challenges. He thinks all the new assessments for the corporation’s islands are too low.
“We were in court with them for four or five years,” said Milliken, who — like Fischer — said his family’s local roots go back nine generations. “They basically wore us down.”
In the mid-2000s, as seaweed’s demand and value began to steadily increase, rockweed harvesting significantly increased along the state’s coast. This was especially prominent in Washington County, where seaweed dealers viewed the relative lack of jobs and the sparsely developed coastline as an opportunity to recruit harvesters.
Officials in Jonesport welcomed the growing industry as a boon to the local economy.
The corporation did not.
In 2016, the corporation joined other Washington County shorefront property owners in a lawsuit over the practice, arguing that seaweed is exempt from colonial-era laws that allow fishing, bird hunting and navigation in the intertidal zone. Widespread cutting of seaweed is damaging to shallow-water habitats that serve as a nursery for lobster and other valuable marine species, the plaintiffs said.
The group won the case in Washington County Superior Court and, after the ruling was appealed, the state supreme court upheld the decision. Harvesters need permission from each abutting upland shorefront property owner to cut seaweed in the intertidal zone between the high and low tide lines, the court said.
At Roque Island, the corporation has banned seaweed harvesters from its islands’ shores.
But Milliken thinks the island’s seaweed resource still could help generate tax income for the town.
If seaweed in Jonesport’s intertidal zone belongs to each abutting upland property owner and has an intrinsic monetary value that the property owners can benefit from, it perhaps should be factored into each landowner’s property assessment, he said. Property owners that allow the public to harvest seaweed from the intertidal zone — as many local island owners do, himself included — could have the seaweed’s value excluded from their assessment.
“We’ve never looked at anything in the intertidal zone as being taxable, even if it is not shared with the public,” he said. “There is no precedent in Maine law for this, but everybody knows seaweed has monetary value.”
Fischer said she had not heard that the town might apply the value of seaweed in the island’s intertidal zone to its future property tax assessments. The corporation’s chief desire in the tax dispute, she said, is to be taxed consistently with how other property owners are taxed.
“We’re happy to pay our taxes, though we don’t get any services,” she said. “We just want to be treated like everybody else.”
As for the corporation’s stance on economic development, Fischer said it sees potential in small-scale aquaculture projects. The scientific ecological research projects the island has hosted has given the corporation a sense of what kind of economic activities are compatible with the local environment, and which ones aren’t, she said.
Seaweed harvesting and the Kingfish proposal could hurt the area’s marine ecosystem, and local fishermen, if they don’t have adequate limits, she said.
“Maine is known for its natural resources,” Fischer said. “We’d rather see businesses that work with that in mind and that don’t compromise the pristine nature of the area.”
But Milliken said that Kingfish already has a good record in the Netherlands, where it operates a land-based fish farm in a nature reserve. He said the project will bring not just jobs, but needed tax revenue to Jonesport, which has a total townwide valuation of only $200 million.
If the lobster industry dries up without another marine-based industry to help fill in the gap, it’s going to be even harder for locals to access the water and make a living, Milliken said, leaving only jobs to support summer residents. “We’re going to be mowing lawns and making beds.”
Correction: A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information about the ownership of the land where Kingfish plans to build the fish farm. Kingfish has completed its purchase of the property.