ST. GEORGE — Town officials were split on spending $25,000 to help purchase and conserve an island, but residents had the final say, approving the spending at their annual town meeting earlier this spring.

The group effort to purchase High Island, off Long Cove on the northeast side of the peninsula, was supported by the town’s conservation commission, but opposed by selectmen, who voted 4-1 against the expenditure.

But selectmen ultimately let residents decide, and they approved the spending expenditure in a 216-176 vote. The town’s contribution to a possible purchase keeps it involved in planning for the property.

In many ways, this is how town government is supposed to work, says William Reinhardt, chair of the St. George selectmen.

“When it comes to raising and appropriating money, the voters decide that,” Reinhardt said. “It’s the will of the people and we will certainly honor that.”

High Island is a familiar part of the St. George waterfront, near enough that it is used by local boaters for picnic outings. The 20-acre parcel also is home to a Tanglewood summer camp.  Close to shore, it also offers sweeping views of the open ocean from granite ledges, says Leslie Hyde of St. George’s conservation commission. 

“It’s spectacularly beautiful,” said Hyde. “You feel like you could be in a national park.”

For years, the island has been maintained in trust by the Wentworth family, with the understanding that the public could enjoy it. But recently, the Wentworths indicated they couldn’t hold onto the property anymore. The trust worked out a deal with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) to sell the property at below-market value to conservationists. MCHT is trying to raise funds for a grant that would be matched by the state’s Land for Maine’s Future fund, and the town was asked to chip in a small sum to be part of the conservation effort.

This presented too good of an opportunity to miss, says Anita Siegenthaler of the Friends of St. George, an organization dedicated to maintaining and creating access to the community’s natural surroundings. Too often, coastal properties like this are bought and divided up, and the public loses access, she said. She didn’t want to see that happen to High Island. 

“It is close enough to the shore that it could have been purchased by a private purchaser,” Siegenthaler said.  “Then it might be lost forever.”

The $25,000 is just a fraction of the total purchase price, expected to be around $650,000, and it’s about what the town pays for two years worth of fireworks, she said. But by voting to contribute, the town gains a seat at the table of the island’s stewardship and sets a tone for future conservation. 

“It puts the town itself on record as saying that conservation and appropriate access is a good idea,”she said.

But most St. George selectmen and the town’s waterfront commission believe it wasn’t the town’s place to preserve the island. They chiefly objected to putting limited town resources toward the purchase of an island that isn’t accessible to community members who don’t own or have access to a boat. As part of the town’s comprehensive plan, the government has been trying for years to set aside funds to purchase properties that improve mainland waterfront access; the island purchase didn’t fit the bill for those town officials, said the town’s harbormaster, David Schmanska. 

“They would much rather look at a mainland piece of property that everyone could access,” he said. 

Those opposed also were uncomfortable with town money going toward a parcel that the town would not control, said Reinhardt. The town already contributes to the state’s conservation fund, Land for Maine’s Future, and it didn’t seem right to Reinhardt that town money should be spent on a MCHT conservation effort. He supports conserving the island, but wanted town residents to use private funds to do it.

“They could write their own check to support it,” he said.

Voter turnout was high, town officials said. If the property is not purchased through Maine Coast Heritage trust, the funds will be returned to the town.