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In South Portland, former fishing shacks serve as a flashpoint in climate rebuilding debate

A fish house in South Portland is swept away on Jan. 13, 2024, during a storm.
Susan Young
A fish house in South Portland is swept away on Jan. 13, 2024, during a storm.

Many residents say they want the city of South Portland to recreate the historic and beloved Willard Beach fishing shacks that were wiped away in last month's storm.

But city officials caution that a rebuild could get complicated.

The former fishing shacks stood in a federal flood and shoreland zone, South Portland officials said earlier this week during a storm damage and coastal resiliency workshop.

And the city said it could be suspended from the National Flood Insurance Program if the shacks are rebuilt in their former location and elevation.

Suspension from the NFIP could also prevent the 105 South Portland homeowners who have federal flood insurance from renewing their policies and restrict new policies from being issued within the city, said Sue Baker, the Maine floodplain management program coordinator.

And executive director Kathy DiPhilippo said the South Portland Historical Society has raised more than $15,000 to rebuild the shacks.

"Rebuilding would happen at zero cost to taxpayers," she said during the workshop. "Donors understand there are no guarantees as to how long rebuilt shacks would last, but what we do know is that the structures would need to be rebuilt to withstand higher tides and increasing storms. And all costs involved would be paid for with donations from people who want it to happen."

Others suggested an art project, historical replica or monument to memorialize the fishing shacks, or building them away from the water.

The fishing shacks served as a flashpoint in the debate over how South Portland can best mitigate the impacts from climate change and prepare for more severe storms in the future.

The city of South Portland said it's committed to managing 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050, and it's preparing to manage up to three feet of sea level rise near the city's critical infrastructure.

Several residents, including John Murphy of Willard Beach, urged the city to make those preparations more quickly.

In the 40 years he's lived in the neighborhood, Murphy said he's never seen a storm like the one that hit the Maine coast Jan. 13. He said he was shocked to hear city officials describe planning for a managed retreat along the coast as part of their climate resiliency preparations.

"Are we willing to sit by and watch our neighborhood wash into the beach? And if we are, shame on us," he said.

City officials said most options are on the table, to include revisiting a 40-year-old proposal to build a breakwater near Willard Beach that never got off the ground.