A plan to turn part of a private Casco Bay island into a seasonal campground rental business was approved Feb. 9 by the Portland Planning Board.
The campground known as Fortland will occupy part of House Island, a remote 24-acre island with some seasonal residences and 212-year-old Fort Scammell, which is available for public tours by appointment.
House Island was also the site of an immigration quarantine station in the early 1900s until around 1937. The entire island was privately owned by the Cushing family until 2014.
The northern portion of the island has been owned since 2019 by entrepreneur Noah Gordon. He bought it from Vincent and Christina Mona, who had purchased it from the Scarks family. Gordon’s plan for his part of the island has been to create a hospitality event venue.
The Fortland proposal for the southern portion, proposed by Stefan Scarks, calls for a 21-site campground comprised of yurts and tents, and a central community building. A majority of the project would be in the island’s residential zone, with a tiny section spilling onto the business zone.
Scarks said his hope is to create “an experience for guests that’s really unmatched,” with panoramic views of the bay while creating the least amount of impact to the island as possible.
“We think it shows we’re invested in being low impact and having a light touch,” Scarks said.
Visitors will be ferried twice a day from the boat launch near Bug Light Park in South Portland, Scarks said. Campers will have access to daily tours of the fort, a service that will also be open to day-trippers.
Scarks, whose family purchased the island from the Cushing family in 2014 before selling off the northern portion, said four structures will have to be built: the community building, which will have bathroom and dining facilities, and a historical library; a utility shed; a bathroom shed, and a well shed. There are two wells on the island.
The Planning Board unanimously approved the site plan. After the city’s recent ReCode project, City Planner Christian Roadman said, campgrounds are a conditional use in the residential zone for the island, which also limited the purview of the Planning Board’s review.
Roadman said the proposal has already received conditional approval from the Historic Preservation Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. While there is a campground parking requirement, there are no roads on the island, so one condition of approval he said was Scarks will provide five parking spaces in South Portland.
Final plans for lighting will also need approval from the Planning Board, Roadman said.
The proposal also calls for the removal of some invasive plant species, which was approved by the city arborist, Jeff Tarling.
According to the company’s website, Fortland is also taking reservations for weddings on the island. And in addition to tours of the fort, the company is working with Portland Water Harbor Tours to provide tours of Casco Bay.