A detail from an architectural illustration by Pepperchrome shows a view from Orr’s Cove of a future boat shop and Marine Travelift at Safe Harbor Great Island.

Safe Harbor Great Island plans to replace its aging marina, install a new boat lift, and erect a 20,000-square-foot building for boat maintenance and repair.

The Harpswell Planning Board approved the project on Oct. 20, subject to various conditions. The company also needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and two permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The boatyard and marina sits on 8 acres between Harpswell Islands Road and Orr’s Cove, an inlet of Quahog Bay. It has 1,000 feet of waterfront on the cove, 65 marina slips and 45 moorings. The business operates a storage facility on another property across Harpswell Islands Road.

The business offers 75,900 square feet of indoor storage and stores 220 vessels each year, according to its website. The town’s second-largest year-round employer after the school district, it has 47 employees and offers a variety of maintenance, repair and restoration services.

Safe Harbor Great Island plans to replace its marina, with construction to begin in September 2022. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

The business was Great Island Boat Yard until June 2020, when owners Steve and Stephanie Rowe sold it to Dallas-based Safe Harbor Marinas. Safe Harbor bills itself as the largest owner and operator of marinas in the world — Great Island was its 100th marina.

Sun Communities Inc., a publicly traded real estate investment trust, acquired Safe Harbor Marinas for $2.11 billion later in 2020, but Safe Harbor continues to operate independently.

Steve Rowe, who now serves as general manager for Safe Harbor Great Island, presented the project to the Planning Board with assistance from Joe Marden, an engineer with Brunswick-based Sitelines.

The project has three parts: the replacement of the marina, addition of the boat lift and construction of the boat shop.

The boatyard started planning for the replacement of the marina in 2018. In 2019, it received a $392,000 Boating Infrastructure Grant toward the project from the federal government.

“It’s a replacement of our existing marina, which is old and aged and broken,” Rowe said. Last year, windstorms caused “a lot of damage” to the docks and some boats, he added.

An old wharf south of the Safe Harbor Great Island marina will remain working waterfront under the business’s plan to build a boat shop and Travelift pier on the site. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

The new marina will extend about 100 feet further to the north, but will not extend any further out into the cove. It will have 15 fewer slips — 50 instead of 65 — but will provide more room for boats to maneuver.

The other in-water part of the project is the installation of a Marine Travelift, which will extend into the cove on two 165-foot piers.

“Today, we haul all of our boats on a hydraulic trailer, which is run into the ocean on a cable,” Rowe said. Boats are maneuvered onto the underwater trailer “and then hauled out by pulling the cable out.”

Rowe called it a “very finicky” method. “Most people don’t do it this way,” he said, and the Travelift has become “the standard in the industry.”

“This improvement will allow us to be more productive but also to improve the safety of both the boats and the hauling crew as we conduct our hauling operations,” he said.

The Travelift can handle boats up to 75 tons, 15 tons more than the trailer’s maximum of 60 tons. But the marina does not intend to service bigger boats. Rowe said the marina currently focuses on boats up to 60 feet and will continue to do so.

Many of the 65 slips at Safe Harbor Great Island remain full on Nov. 8. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

The final element of the project is the construction of a building for boat maintenance and repair.

The boat shop and the Travelift pier will go up on a pair of 1-acre lots south of the main property. Safe Harbor acquired the land in April.

One of the properties has more than 70 years of history as working waterfront — as a facility for commercial fishing and dock construction, as well as boat repair and storage.

“We intend to preserve this site as a working waterfront facility, but focus it on boat repair exclusively,” Rowe said.

In addition to town approval, the company needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which will look at hazards to navigation and plans for in-water construction; and two permits from the DEP — a Natural Resources Protection Act permit and a stormwater permit.

For the Natural Resources Protection Act permit, the DEP considers impacts on fisheries, natural habitat and water quality, among other issues.

The project needs a stormwater permit because it proposes more than a half-acre of new “impermeable” surface, such as pavement or structures, which will increase the volume of runoff into the cove. The marina will treat the stormwater with a system that meets DEP requirements.

Safe Harbor expects answers on both DEP permits in January.

Barrels and rope are strewn around an old wharf on Orr’s Cove, a base for commercial fishing and dock construction before its sale to Safe Harbor Great Island. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Planning Board member Amy Haible raised concerns about the project’s impact on fisheries and water quality. She noted that the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust has cited Quahog Bay’s vulnerability to development in its efforts to preserve land on Orr’s Cove.

“I am very concerned that this bay is going to reach its tipping point and we’re not going to get it back,” she said.

Marden said that in addition to himself and the DEP, a town engineer reviewed the stormwater measures for the project. Rowe said the business follows a stormwater plan that aims to keep the site free of contaminants that could wash into the cove.

A neighbor, Liz Allen, called the boatyard a good neighbor but expressed concern about its growth. “How big is too big and how much are we going to allow to happen?” she said.

“This is heritage land for me that I would like to keep and enjoy for my entire life and pass on to my family without living next to a huge conglomerate,” Allen added.

A view of the Safe Harbor Great Island marina from the south. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Rowe spoke about his family’s connection to Harpswell and how it influences the development of the boatyard.

“We’ve been here for 16 years and we plan to live out the rest of our lives in Harpswell and we spend a lot of time in our boat on Orr’s Cove and we don’t want to put something there that is something that we’re not proud of,” he said.

Philip Conner, a Great Island resident who operated a boatyard on Chesapeake Bay for 25 years, called Safe Harbor Great Island a “model” boatyard and marina and “a real credit to our town.”

During a November interview at the marina, Rowe said that 35 of the business’s 47 employees are tradespeople — a crew with a reputation that attracts boaters from up and down the East Coast.

“I think it’s important that people can raise a family in Harpswell and have a job in Harpswell, working on the water,” he said. “It’s part of the town’s heritage.”

He said the boatyard has built seven new buildings in the last 15 years and its latest project is “nothing revolutionary or new for us.”

Safe Harbor Great Island is clearing a building site on land south of the existing boatyard and marina. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

The Planning Board took a series of votes to determine the project’s compliance with standards in three town ordinances, governing land use, shoreland zoning and site plan review.

All votes were either 5-0 or 4-1 in favor of the project. Haible cast the opposing votes.

“There is not enough information for me to be sure that there’s not going to be some impact on fisheries based on the new construction and the stormwater runoff your project is going to produce,” Haible said.

The final vote, to find the entire project in compliance, was 4-1.

Rowe expects construction to begin in September.

A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.


Discussion of the Safe Harbor project starts at 27:19 in the video below: