Jeff Donnell and Mark Sewall, two lobstermen whose families have been fishing from York Harbor for generations, recently purchased a dock near historic Sewall’s Bridge on the York River. Much can be learned from this experience that could benefit other communities struggling with preserving access to the sea.

The purchase of York Working Waterfront is widely regarded as having produced a breakthrough method for preserving fishermen’s access to the sea. In fact, this case actually added to the collective length of Maine’s working waterfront, transferring land from residential to water-dependent use. The fishermen were ecstatic at the property closing party; they will not have to worry about access again.

York River Land Trust bought the development rights, CEI helped the fishermen fund the venture, the lawyers negotiated the terms of the deal, and the community rallied its support. The components: a local land trust, charismatic individuals, an urgent community, an intrigued seller, and support from the state.

The charismatic individuals included Joey Donnelly of the York Land Trust, lawyer Ed Bradley, Elizabeth Sheehan of CEI, and Scott Stevens of the Old York Homestead Association, Mr. Donnell and Mr. Sewall, two very driven fishermen, and a host of others. At the real estate closing party Jeff Donnell recalled how, “this was possible because a few people came together on a cold Maine day in January.” They came together because a small piece of land and a deep-water dock on the York River had gone on the market.

The price, over $700,000, was beyond the means of the fishermen. For the following months “every time a Porsche drove out on the dock we would get on the phone to one another in hopes that the property would not sell,” recalls Donnelly. Luckily the seller was intrigued with the proposition and gave the fishermen time to gather their resources.

A year back, one of the last fishing piers in York was sold and then converted to a residence complete with potted trees and a white picket fence. This was not the working waterfront envisioned by the York community, and residents began to organize.

The York River Land Trust was able to engage the project because it felt that the dock was part of the historic and scenic beauty of the York River, and as part of the viewshed, it fell within the land trust’s mission to attempt to protect the piece of land from unwanted development. It bought the development rights to the property.

As with farming, land trusts have applied their methods to protect the resource and the resource harvester. However, land trusts traditionally protect largely undeveloped rural landscapes, and working waterfronts are often heavily developed. Doreen MacGillis, Director of the York Land Trust related that for her, “economic activities can complement ecological activities – we are interested in protecting pristine landscapes as well as securing the vision we want for our communities.”

Identifying a community’s collective vision and then moving to preserve it is a contentious undertaking. Recognizing this, York Land Trust worked closely with community members, fishermen, and an architect to develop the aesthetic codes for the properties structures. At a state-wide meeting on access held in December, people appreciated this effort, while recognizing the need for land trusts to work towards a flexible definition of what a working waterfront might look like in the future.

Generating conservation easement language for the property was challenging and was only resolved on the final day of the sale. Negotiators worked to define “working waterfront” in a way that could accommodates future changes in the fishing industry. Will there be lobsters forever? And what do we do with the land and structure if there aren’t? As one observer noted, “Do we hang a sign up that says ‘waiting for future working waterfront?’ ”

The York easement defines “working water front uses” with the future in mind. The fishery is not specified. To paraphrase, these uses include the floats, docks, vessels, and other equipment and support resources required for harvesting aquatic (marine and freshwater) organisms. Support offices for related businesses are included. Retail shops, offices and open air snack bars are allowed provided that they relate directly the to the harvest of aquatic organisms. Marinas, restaurants, and fuel pumps are not included. (Picture Port Clyde in your head and you’ve got the definition.)

Farmland, open space, forests, historical structures and certain other lands are recognized by the state as having special qualities that provide significant public benefits to local communities. Currently the state, in partnership with the Working Waterfront Coalition, is making the case to add working waterfronts to this list.

There is no doubt that the land trust solution to working waterfronts will be harder to activate in other places. Fishermen will be wary of involving land trusts in the preservation of their working waterfronts, given the historic mistrust between environmentalists and natural resource harvesters. In addition, fishermen will be leery of being frozen in place and time by the constraints of easement language. These barriers to applying the land trust model highlight the need for local land trusts to engage communities in a case-by-case examination of the appropriateness of this option.

Rob Snyder represents the Island Institute on the Working Waterfront Coalition.