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Deadline nears for funding to preserve Goslings Islands off Harpswell

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Deadline nears for funding to preserve Goslings Islands off Harpswell

TOPSHAM — With an Aug. 31 deadline looming, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust is ramping up efforts to raise $925,000 to purchase and preserve the Goslings Islands, a trio of small Casco Bay islands off Harpswell.

The campaign kicked off two months ago, and despite a widespread grassroots effort, so far only $135,000 has been raised.

News on Tuesday that the trust will receive a $262,500 grant from the Land for Maine's Future program came as partial relief. MCHT remains optimistic that it will reach its goal, project manager Keith Fletcher said.

"I think in a month's time the picture should look very different," Fletcher said Monday, in an interview at MCHT's office.

For generations, families have been visiting East and West Gosling, and Irony Island, which are south of Lower Goose Island, between Freeport, Harpswell and Brunswick.

The LeMaitre family, which owns the islands, has allowed unrestricted public access, letting visitors camp, play and anchor their boats offshore, MCHT spokesman Richard Knox said.

Now, the family is looking to sell the islands, and has given MCHT exclusive rights to buy the nearly 14 acres at their assessed value, $700,000.

The trust is trying to raise enough to buy the islands and another $225,000 for long-term preservation, but only has until the end of August to prove it can raise the money.

If the trust doesn't meet its goal, it is feared that a private landowner could scoop up the islands for development, ending the tradition of public access.

Since it started fundraising in May, the Trust has received 60 donations, Knox said.

"We're really energized by the grassroots nature of this purchase," Knox said, adding that widespread affection for the islands across the communities of Casco Bay encouraged the fundraising effort.

The owners and patrons of Paul's Marina, on Mere Point in Brunswick, have been helping lead that grassroots charge.

Helene Harrower, who owns the marina with her husband Rob, said the business is aiming to raise $15,000 for the cause.

Signs asking for donations are plastered on almost every available space in Judy's General Store at the marina, next to rows of hats and T-shirts bearing the symbol of the campaign: a silhouette of a mother goose leading her babies.

The family started the fundraising because so many of their customers frequent the Goslings, Harrower said.

She's been surprised, however, by how many people she has introduced to the islands, and how many of them end up donating.

"I probably explain the Goslings and their sale about a dozen times a day," Harrower said.

Chris Davis, from Brunswick, was stocking up on provisions at the store on a recent morning before heading out to the islands to play pirates with his two young sons.

His family has been using the islands for three generations, Davis said, and he's worried that their sale could end that tradition and close off what he sees as one of the few public spaces left in Casco Bay.

"The Goslings represent the last little place where folks without a million dollars can go to relax on the coast," Davis said.

The islands' popularity is helping drive attendance at the fundraising events Paul's has planned.

For instance, $50 tickets for a "Save the Goslings Gala" lobster bake at Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport on July 25 were quickly bought up; as of Monday, only 17 of the 125 were left.

There has been so much interest in the event that more spaces might be opened up at the last minute, as long as the weather cooperates, Harrower said.

In addition, the marina is organizing a small sailboat regatta for Sunday, July 27, that will start at the west end of Upper Goose Island and loop around the Goslings.

To win prizes, racers must donate $25 per boat and $10 per crew member. The first place prize is a $1,000 donation to MCHT in the boat's name.

The regatta will be followed by a "Way Point Rally" on Aug. 2, where for a donation of $25 per hand, boaters will be given GPS coordinates for seven checkpoints, where they will receive playing cards. The object is to collect the best poker hand, Harrower said.

Even with the community support behind the project, MCHT is still waiting on "lead donors" to emerge with six-figure gifts or more, Fletcher said.

MCHT has turned its attention to owners of some of the larger craft that anchor offshore of the Goslings, in the hope that one might have the wherewithal to make such a substantial gift, he added.

"We're hoping the people who love to use the islands will also help us protect them," he said.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.