“Sometimes I have to make difficult decisions,” says transportation minister

Green heads to Campobello to discuss land sales and says no to year-round ferry

CAMPOBELLO ISLAND – Her first-ever visit to Campobello Island didn’t alter Transportation Minister Jill Green’s course on a year-round ferry for the isolated island.

The Fredericton North MLA made the trek to Campobello from the mainland to get ready to sell nearly 80 lots of land once floated as part of an “island paradise” before its two American developers got engulfed by the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal.

“We have never committed to a year-round ferry,” Green told The Saint Croix Courier. “There’s no intention of having a full-time, year-round ferry for the island at this point.”

Word the province is selling the surplus properties prompted cries from year-round ferry supporters for the proceeds to be used to help fund another alternative for residents, visitors, tradespeople and others to get on and off island.

Green acknowledged Campobello Island is unique as a community whose only permanent link to the mainland, a bridge that crosses into Lubec, Maine, requires people to show their passports.

The COVID-19 pandemic made that trip tricky, putting a national spotlight on island’s predicament. As a stopgap, Premier Blaine Higgs’ government extended the seasonal, June-to-September ferry.

“I certainly recognize what was going on through COVID and that’s why we kept the ferry running through the winter,” Green said. “But they do have a bridge, a connection to the mainland, where some of our other islands don’t.”

Other islands in the area do have year-round ferries.

Green said her budget is limited. “I know it seems like a lot. But I have to take care of the entire province and the transportation network.

“Sometimes I have to make difficult decisions.”

The Department Transportation and Infrastructure has no say in how the proceeds from the sale of the properties will be spent.

“They go into a land management fund that’s then used on properties we have around the province to do maintenance and those kinds of things,” said Green.

She said the planned land sales and ferry have no connection. New Brunswick could get infrastructure funding from Ottawa for a year-round ferry, but the province would be responsible for the operation costs. It’s been spending tens of thousands of dollars extending the seasonal ferry, a private operation run by East Coast Ferries Ltd.

New Campobello Mayor Harvey Matthews said he and other councillors met with Green while she was on the island in September and pressed her about extending the seasonal ferry.

“She said she was still in summer mode,” Matthews said in an interview. “She hadn’t even decided if the ferry was going to be extended this winter, as you know it’s a month-by-month thing.”

Matthews, a lobster fisherman, says he only takes the ferry once or twice a year. He wants the extended service to continue rather than have a new operator take over.

“The people running it are doing a great job,” he said. “I’d like to see an upgraded service with the same people operating it.”

He said he hears all different points of view on the ferry, and not everyone is in favour of a permanent one.

Matthews said Green was most interested in drumming up interest in the lots of land and showed a video of herself hyping the island’s beauty and historic relationship with the Roosevelt family.

The municipality has right of first refusal on lots being offered and is opting to buy four, with prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to about $13,000, he said. “We got a small, discounted rate on the appraised value. It wasn’t a big discount for something unwanted.”

The least expensive is a small waterfront lot by Wilsons Beach, not big enough to build on, that could be a good spot for a fishermen’s memorial, he said. The priciest of the properties is inland and could be good for low-income housing, he said.

The transportation and infrastructure department ended up with the 78 lots of land after they were seized for failure to pay taxes. Many of the choicest properties were snapped up in tax sales. The remainder ended-up with Green’s department as “surplus.”

“The properties have been in (the department) for quite some time,” said Green. “We had been receiving some calls about them and because the real-estate market is hot, we thought it might be time to put them up for sale.”

The 74 properties up for sale are appraised at nearly $860,000.

Green is hoping they’ll fetch much more.

“We’re doing this regularly around the province and I can tell you some of the numbers we’re getting on some of the properties are astonishingly high; three, four times what they’re appraised at,” she said. “I can’t wait until the tender closes to find out what happens.”

The properties are being sold in three tranches through the province’s blind, e-bid system. Offers on the first lots are due at the end of November. Green said the province will hang on to properties if they don’t go above the appraised value.

“It’s pretty exciting and it also gave me the opportunity to go to Campobello,” Green said. “I had never been there before actually.”

Green arrived on the island via the ferry and took the same route home, opting not to make the trip over the bridge and through Maine.

She said she met with the municipality and got to talk with some islanders during her visit. “Anybody that bids on these properties has the opportunity to be someplace pretty special,” she said.

Asked if she was tempted to make a bid herself, Green laughed and said if she wasn’t involved in the sales process she might.

“Sometimes it’s not what’s actually okay, it’s how it looks,” she said. “It wouldn’t pass the smell test if all the sudden I’m building a home over in Campobello Island.”

Justin Tinker, who heads up a group lobbying for a year-round ferry, says purchasers of the lots of land might soon find out about the difficulties facing many island residents. Every step in the construction process, from surveyors to land appraisers to tradespeople, will be hampered by lack of a permanent ferry, he said.

“Government isn’t changing its tune, but it needs to realize that continued inaction is choking-off this community,” said Tinker, a Saint John resident who grew up on Campobello. “The lack of a reliable, year-round ferry with access to and from New Brunswick mainland is the largest barrier to Campobello’s viability going forward.”

Janet Whitman