Coastal Island Registry
Maine’s Coastal Island Registry (CIR) was created in 1973 by the 106th Legislature as a means of clarifying title to the more than 2,000 islands scattered along its coastal shores. These islands and the rich variety of resources that they represent are of great importance because they define much of the aesthetic character of the Maine coast, are part of the original homeland and remain culturally significant to the Wabanaki, and reflect a significant era in Maine’s early colonial history of fishing, logging, and homesteading. They also represent an important public resource for public recreational opportunities where 96 percent of Maine’s coastal region is privately owned.
After colonization, coastal islands were held by the Sovereign (European states such as England and France before the American Revolution, the State of Massachusetts before 1820, and the State of Maine after 1820) as part of the public domain; and, like other undeveloped portions of the territory, they were viewed as having little value other than to encourage settlement. Throughout Maine’s early statehood, its coastal islands were auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Legislature, realizing that some of Maine’s islands should be reserved for the public to use and enjoy, enacted a law in 1913 (Chapter 132, P.L., 1913) resolving that all coastal islands not already conveyed by the Sovereign would be held for purposes of public use. In accordance with the new law, the State commissioned Melvin H. Simmons, Esq. to examine titles to the coastal islands; and in 1915, he produced a detailed report known as the Simmons Report which described the islands and attempted to identify those which had already been conveyed by the Sovereign.
It was not uncommon during the 18th and 19th centuries for real estate in these northern territories to be conveyed informally on a "handshake and a nod." This created gaps in the written record which would later obscure many written chains of title. Confusion over land ownership in some areas was so prevalent during the early 19th century that all lands in one coastal region were "repossessed" by the Sovereign and subsequently redistributed to create a single "new" source of title from which the record could be re-established. Such uncertainty surrounding title issues also extended to coastal islands in public ownership which in turn led to the enactment of the Coastal Island Registry in 1973. Read the statute here: MRSA, Title 33, Chapter 25.
The Coastal Island Registry is administered by the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF). BPL is the State’s principal land management agency though the stewardship of some islands has been transferred to other State agencies. The CIR contains three main provisions including:
- All purported owners of coastal islands were to register claims of ownership with the State by December 1, 1975 (federally owned and larger, inhabited islands with four or more structures were exempt).
- All coastal islands not registered by the deadline were to be designated "unregistered coastal islands" the care and custody of which would fall to the State of Maine.
- BPL was to examine the titles of all registered islands to determine a "true" owner for each.
The Act established two criteria for demonstrating "true" ownership:
- written evidence of private title predating passage of the 1913 coastal island law and/ or
- adverse possession against another private party (adverse possession claims against any publically held islands would not be considered a valid claim). If neither of these two criteria could be met, care and custody of the island would reside with the State of Maine, until such time as a "true" owner registered the island and established a valid title.
The Coastal Island Registry Today
Currently, the CIR indicates there are 1,846 islands registered to private owners, 204 islands that are exempt from registering (islands that contain 4 or more structures), and 1,322 islands under the State of Maine’s care and custody. It is important to note that a coastal island need only be registered once. The primary purpose of the CIR is to distinguish between public and private ownership – not to maintain a current record of owners. If anyone is purchasing an island, the buyer should require proof of registration and a disclaimer of State interest before closing the transaction; but there is no need for the new owner to re-register. However, BPL, for a nominal fee, will update the CIR to reflect new ownership information for those who still wish to re-register their island.
For more information contact:
Coastal Island Registry
Bureau of Parks and Lands
22 State House Station
Augusta, Maine 04333-0022