GREAT DIAMOND ISLAND – An uneasy truce is in effect on this small, divided island, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it will hold.

The dispute does not involve fishing rights, property taxes or any of the typical flash points on Maine’s coastal islands. No, it’s about a subject that rarely stirs passions: golf carts.

Over the last decade or so, Great Diamond Island has seen an explosion in the battery-operated vehicles, from just a handful to more than 100, as the number of residents has swelled with the transformation of a turn-of-the-century Army fortress into a pricey new development.

Golf carts have come to represent the most visible symbol of this rapid change, and they’ve spurred a backlash among some residents who feel the island’s sleepy charm is under threat.

A compromise reached in May bars residents from crossing the island in their golf carts during the summer months, but that’s hardly settled the issue.

Today many residents grumble about the new rules, while others openly flout them. Some are embarrassed that a picayune dispute has turned their community into a source of amusement for outsiders.

But no one, it seems, can find a satisfactory solution.

“You have almost mutually exclusive lifestyles at stake,” said Philip Conkling of the Island Institute up the coast in Rockland. “It’s hard to compromise. People don’t compromise over their lifestyles.”

Just a 2-mile ferry ride from Portland, Great Diamond is one of hundreds of islands dotting Casco Bay. They were once called the Calendar Isles because there was believed to be one for each day of the year.

Great Diamond, shaped like a lobster claw and part of the city Portland, is one of five in the bay that are inhabited year-round.

The village on the island’s southern end was settled by summer residents in the late 1800s. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army built Fort McKinley on the island’s northern end as part of its defense of Casco Bay.

The fort was an active military base complete with a hospital, bowling alley and movie theater until just after World War II. Once it was abandoned, vandals looted furniture and china from officers’ quarters, and even took the copper from the red-brick buildings’ roofs.

For the next four decades, Fort McKinley was an eyesore to residents of the 1-mile-long island. It became a makeshift trash dump, and two major fires destroyed historic buildings.

During the 1980s a developer bought the fortress with an eye toward rehabbing the barracks and officers’ homes into a luxury community dubbed Diamond Cove. The city of Portland and other parties reached a final agreement on redeveloping the historic site in 1991.

Diamond Cove’s rules stated that residents could not drive golf carts to the island’s southern end. Residents of the southern end were also banned from taking private vehicles into the historic section of Diamond Cove.

The restrictions were largely disregarded by Diamond Cove residents who used their carts to zip to the other end of the island to visit friends and the southern ferry landing. And people on the south end routinely traveled to Diamond Cove’s restaurant, general store and the northern ferry terminal.

Around the time new residents began arriving in the early 1990s, another less noticeable change occurred: the woman who ran the island’s taxi service retired.

Many of those who used her taxi services to haul groceries from the ferry decided to buy motorized carts, even though the island has no golf course.

To some, the influx seemed innocuous. Golf carts are slow – usually topping out around 10 mph – and don’t cause much damage to island roads, they figured.

Others saw Great Diamond’s population increase – the largest among Maine’s islands during the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census – as contributing to a major change in the island’s character. Current estimates on the island’s summer population vary between 300 and 600.

Longtime residents couldn’t stop newcomers from moving to their island. But some decided they could do something about the carts.

Paul Gleason, who began coming to the island 25 years ago, was one of a few of them considering going to court over the carts.

“The island that I knew in 1978 has been sort of overwhelmed by all these new people. And new patterns have not really been established,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, Joy Lee Eppes and her retired husband Bill were puttering around Diamond Cove in their golf cart. The two are North Carolina natives who were living in Massachusetts, ready to move back home, when they visited Great Diamond Island in 1998.

Joy Lee, 65, recalls that tears streamed down her cheeks when she first saw the fort’s meticulously preserved parade ground. The couple decided to make Diamond Cove their year-round home.

“For me it’s magical,” Mrs. Eppes said. “There’s no more beautiful spot than right here on this island.”

The same pride Joy Lee Eppes takes in the former Fort McKinley is evident throughout Diamond Cove. The lawns are all trimmed, the roads smooth, and the restored brick buildings have an orderly charm.

It’s different on Great Diamond’s southern end. Some of the cottages have been in the same family for generations, and each has its own funky charm. Brightly colored buoys hang in some back yards.

People chuckle that they’re putting off repairing their weather-beaten homes to avoid showing up the neighbors.

Residents on both ends of the island say they want to bury their squabbling and live as one community. But at least for this summer, golf carts remain parked on opposite sides of Diamond Cove’s gates.

The dynamics on Great Diamond Island are actually more complex than the differences between the island’s two ends.

Each side has year-round and summer residents, and each of the four groups has different interests, according to Conkling of the Island Institute.

“I can’t think of another island community that has so many different constituencies and points of view to work out,” he said.

Golf carts don’t usually cause a stir, though they have sparked disputes in recent years in upscale communities like Put-In-Bay, Ohio, and the Hampton Cove neighborhood of Huntsville, Ala.

But the controversy on Great Diamond embodies much of what makes life off Maine’s coast unique. Community bonds are tight, but once disputes erupt, things can turn ugly.

“Islanders go to great lengths to minimize conflict because islands are very small places to not get along with your neighbor,” Conkling said. “Once a conflict breaks out, they are much more intense on islands.”

Roger Robinson, a year-round Great Diamond resident, called the golf cart dispute “the most divisive thing that’s happened to the island in a long time.”

He complained that Diamond Cove was gradually changing the island’s character because its residents, many of them suburban refugees, are slowly transforming the island into another outpost of suburbia.

“It’s so different from where they came from, and that’s the appeal of it,” Robinson said. “More and more of them keep coming until systemically it becomes where they came from.”

Other residents say Great Diamond is, like any other place, constantly changing. And they contend that most of the changes, such as the addition of a sewage system, have been positive.

Perhaps it’s because residents love the island so much, some offered, that change is viewed with suspicion.

For now, the threat of litigation is on hold. The unpopular trial agreement, which bans cross-island travel between April 15 and Columbus Day, remains in effect until September, when residents will evaluate its effectiveness.

At the main gate to Diamond Cove, most residents seem to be complying, but some simply ignore the posted warnings and buzz past in their electric carts. Some of the signs have been taken down by vandals.

Despite the acrimony, islanders seem to be maintaining a sense of humor about their dispute.

A T-shirt recently went on sale that reads, “If golf carts are outlawed, only outlaws will have golf carts.”

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