The future of the former Estes Lobster House in South Harpswell remains uncertain after the failure of a proposal to convert the building into condominiums.
On Aug. 24, the Harpswell Board of Appeals voted 5-0 to deny an application from building owner Larry Crooker for an “undue hardship variance” that would have allowed him to transform the shuttered restaurant into two condominiums with four to five bedrooms each.
Crooker needed the variance because the property lies in a Shoreland Business District, where a lot must have a minimum area of 40,000 square feet for each residential unit. The Estes lot measures 22,300 square feet — too small for even one residential unit, according to town officials.
State law and town ordinance allow the Board of Appeals to grant a variance “when strict application of the ordinance to the petitioner and the petitioner’s property would cause undue hardship.”
An applicant must meet four conditions to prove undue hardship: the land cannot “yield a reasonable return” without a variance; the applicant must need the variance because of the property’s “unique circumstances,” rather than the “general conditions in the neighborhood”; the variance “will not alter the essential character of the locality”; and the hardship did not result from “action taken by the applicant or a prior owner.”
Estes Lobster House was last open in the summer of 2020. The 150-seat restaurant on Potts Harbor was in business for 65-70 years, according to Crooker. The building is at 1906 Harpswell Neck Road, just north of the causeway that leads to Potts Point.
When Estes Lobster House closed, Crooker said, he put the restaurant and two nearby houses up for sale.
At one time, the restaurant and the houses were on the same parcel. When the house lots were split off, a parking lot across the road from the restaurant was split off with one of the lots.
Both houses sold. “So now I have the restaurant, but it’s not a restaurant anymore because it doesn’t have any parking,” Crooker told the Board of Appeals. The restaurant now has 30 spaces, but needs 75, he said.
But the board determined that Crooker had not shown undue hardship, both because the land can yield a reasonable return without a variance and because the hardship resulted from Crooker’s actions in dividing the land.
“I don’t think it was ever Mr. Crooker’s intention to paint himself into a corner, but I think over the years decisions have been made that resulted in this current situation,” Chair Ned Simmons said.
Board member Jim Knight read from a Maine Municipal Association memorandum about variances and the question of “reasonable return.”
“The most difficult criterion for the applicant to show is that without the variance the land cannot yield a reasonable return. … Maximum return is not reasonable return,” Knight read. If a property retains any “beneficial use” without a variance — even if the owner can only camp there and the value of the land plummets — the board should not grant a variance.
Voting on the four conditions separately, the board unanimously determined that Crooker did not satisfy those conditions. It sided with Crooker on the other two conditions, voting 5-0 that the need for a variance stems from the property’s “unique circumstances” and 4-1 that granting the variance would not change “the essential character of the locality.”
The board then voted 5-0 that Crooker had not proved that strict application of the ordinance would cause undue hardship.
Simmons informed Crooker of his rights of appeal, including the right to ask the board to reconsider its decision within 10 days and the right to appeal the board’s decision through the courts within 45 days. Crooker did not ask the board to reconsider, according to a town official.
Attempts to interview Crooker about his plans for the property were unsuccessful.