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March 9, 2020

House Island campground takes first step towards development

an aerial view of an hour-glass shaped island with an old stone fort Courtesy / Fortland Holdings LLC The southern end of House Island, foreground, which is home to historic Fort Scammel, may become a seasonal campground with 21 tent and yurt sites.
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The Portland Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday unanimously approved a conditional use permit for a campground that would be developed on the site of historic Fort Scammel on House Island.

Plans for the 21-site campground on the privately owned island have been in the works for five years by developers Travis Bullard and Stefan Scarks, of Fortland LLC. The site plan still must be approved by the planning board, and the campground also needs a permit from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The campground would be on the site of Fort Scammel, which was built in 1808 to protect Portland and its harbor. The city's Historic Preservation Board issued a certificate of appropriateness in 2018 for the campground plan.

The zoning board Thursday agreed that all criteria for the conditional use permit are met by the plan. The campground is an allowed use, but the permit is necessary to determine it would not have more of an impact than other allowed uses in the zone, which is Island Residential [IR-1]. Allowed uses include up to four year-round single-family houses, planned residential unit development, agriculture, boat houses and storehouses for fishing equipment, and parking and storage of equipment related to agriculture or commercial fishing.

Scarks, whose father bought the island in 2014, told the board the goal is to preserve, protect and celebrate the environmental and historic elements of the island.

"Upwards of five years now we have been pursuing development of this site into a campground, with the goal of sharing this amazing place with the public," he told the board. "We feel lucky to be its stewards."

The campground would be on the 15.8 acres that make up the large southern portion of the hourglass-shaped island, which is in the channel between South Portland's Spring Point and Peaks Island. 

Existing structures on the campground site include the 30,000-square-foot granite-and-masonry fort, and 10,000 square feet of granite, brick and masonry tunnels that connect ramparts and bastions to subterranean magazines.

The developers plan five parking spaces in South Portland, with a private launch that would ferry campers to and from the island. Bullard said campers who want to arrive by their own kayak or other boat would be reviewed "on a case by case basis," but the plan does not include a public boat launch.

The campground would be open from May to October, and because of seasonal operations and limited footprint, would have much less of an impact on other allowed uses, Bullard and Scarks said.

Courtesy / Fortland LLC
The plan for the Fortland campground on House Island, as submitted to the Portland Zoning Board of Appeals.

Impact, design among conditions

Conditions considered, and approved by, the zoning board were that the campground:

  • Will not allow recreational vehicles;
  • Gets a license from DHHS, which addresses waste disposal;
  • Does not have tents or campsites within 75 feet of the perimiter of the site;
  • The land area is not less than 5,000 square feet;
  • Gets site plan review by the planning board;
  • Will not have a greater impact than surrounding uses or other allowed uses, including things like pavement and traffice;
  • Will not create unsanitary or adverse conditions noise, dust, glare, light, litter'
  • Design, including signs and buildings, does not have a substantially greater effect than other allowed uses.

The 21 sites that would hold a maximum of 60 people, though Bullard said they expect fewer most of the time — they expect couples or small families.

They plan to build three small buildings, a utility shed, a pump house and a 192-square-foot bathroom shed that would have environmentally friendly waste disposal. There will also be a 2,850-square-foot community building. there would be eight decks on gun foundations, six of them semi-permanent yurt structures and two for tents, as well as eight other 15 other tent sites.

They're also working with historic preservation officials on the signs and other elements.

Since first proposing the campground, Bullard and Scarks said they have worked with local, state and federal regulators for feedback and guidance on project design and development, as well as the city's zoning, planning and public safety staff. Board members Thursday said the application was much more detailed and well-prepared than many that come before them, and there was little discussion about issues regarding the plan.

Courtesy / Fortland LLC
Photos of House Island and Fort Scammel submitted to the Portland Zoning Board of Appeals.

'Cool factor,' history, business support touted

There was no public opposition to the project at the meeting and of the eight people who spoke in favor, the development's one abutter said he welcomes it.

"It’s fantastic way to make an otherwise private island accessible to the public," said Noah Gordon, who owns the 12-acre north end of the 27-acre island. That end has three structures that were once barracks and other houses on the site, and was most recently rented out as a vacation or wedding venue.

Gordon added that Fort Scammel, built in 1808, is one of the only privately owned forts of its era and the campground will allow the public to have access to the fort in a way that's rare across the country. "That sense of history is what we want as community to support," said Gordon.

Mike Roy, a Casco Bay fishing guide who runs a charter boat, said the campground would also be good for business.

He said it would not only bring "like-minded, outdoor-minded" people to the area and give them a place to stay, but also provide a resource. "I grew up camping on the islands, an opportunity that's become scarce," he said. He said he often gets calls from people looking to camp on the islands.

Adam Morse, of Portland, a business owner, said the campground would also add to Portland's "cool factor," and be one more thing to encourage visitors or new residents.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really cool," Morse said, and continues Portland's move toward making the city an attraction.

He said that he also knows Bullard and Scarks. "These two guys are not developers coming to Portland looking to rape and pillage and make a ton of money," Morse said. "They're people that live in Maine, love Maine and are doing something extremenly cool."

The site plan now goes to the Planning Board, which will review it as a Level II Site Plan, drilling down details including transportation, enviroment and landscape, infrastructure, safety, contstruction management and more.

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