ROCKPORT — Town officials on Nov. 14 OK’d continued operation of Rockport’s novel seaside sauna while a final decision awaits on whether it or any vendor should be allowed in public parks.

The permit for Native Sauna to operate at Rockport Marine Park through winter was approved by a unanimous Select Board vote with members Mark Kelley and Jim Annis absent. The permit is good through March 31, 2023.

At the same time, the board asked the Harbor and the Parks and Beautification Committees to meet in an effort to resolve the question of whether food trucks, saunas and other commercial operations are acceptable in parks or should be limited, regulated, charged or banned. The committees will draft recommendations and perhaps a policy proposal for the board’s consideration. No timeline was given for recommendations to come back to the board.

The need for a policy surfaced in September when Native Sauna requested and received a temporary permit to operate at the picturesque seaside park, near the landscaped statue of Andre the Seal. At the time, the lack of a governing policy was recognized, questions were raised about if a sauna was a good idea and it was agreed the two oversight committees should explore the matter.

In the more than two months since the September meeting, and about four months since Josh and Beth Goodman of Lincolnville first applied for a peddler’s permit to operate, the couple has received two extensions, but the committees have not convened a joint meeting and the town has not developed, reviewed or adopted a policy.

The committees apparently have met separately to discuss the sauna and vendors in general. Harbormaster Abbie Leonard in September favored a permit for the sauna. She has since met with the Harbor Committee and, on Oct. 14, reported its full support for granting another extension — with minor stipulations related to not blocking views and snow removal.

“The winter is a time to try this and see how it goes,” she wrote in a memo to the board. “The Harbor Committee and I will look into vendor/commercial use of the park and will have guidelines to recommend to the board moving forward.”

In remarks at the meeting, Leonard said that, on a personal level, she likes the idea of the sauna at the park and has seen no ill effects from its operations since September.

“I would disagree that it takes away from what a park should be doing,” she told the board, adding that such uses of parks are going on all over the world.

A different scenario was then presented by Douglas Cole, chair of the Rockport Parks and Beautification Committee. Noting that he was offering his comments as a counter to Leonard’s, he said his committee studied the issue from many angles — including revenue to the town and aesthetic considerations — and unanimously opposes vendors in parks.

“We really felt commercial use of our parks just wasn’t appropriate and that is our recommendation to the board; we are happy to revisit it with the harbor committee,” Cole said.

He then added, referencing Leonard’s publicly stated personal impressions of Native Sauna, that his committee’s “observations were that there were a lot of people who were sort of horrified to have that in our parks.”

Beth Goodman, with her husband Josh at her side, spoke as she has in the past about what she believes are the health benefits of the Finnish-style sauna they offer. She emphasized that their’s is an intermittent, not a daily operation, and will actually be in the park less frequently through March than it has since September.

Beth and Josh Goodman of Lincolnville inside their mobile Native Sauna trailer. Photo by Jack M. Foley

She said they recognize this is a tough issue for the town. “We really don’t want to be in the middle of any kind of drama or ill will. If the general consensus is that people are happy for us to be there, we’re happy to be down there; and if they don’t want us to be there, we’ll figure something out.”

For its part, the three Select Board members in attendance agreed more work is needed on the policy level. Noting the matter was getting “tiring,” Eric Boucher said the committees must reach a consensus. “We need to put them together and let them figure it out,” he said.

Board member Denise Munger in the past has stated on several occasions that the sauna has a lot of opposition, at one point describing it as more than any issue she has seen. As the board’s liaison to Cole’s committee, she reiterated its stand against vendors in parks.

As for Native Sauna, she said: “I am not out to get Native Sauna at all. I do think we need a policy.” The park in winter is “not the most beautiful” she opined, and gets little use that time of year. For those reasons, she said, she would support the temporary permit extension for Native Sauna.

“I don’t see why we can’t try it,” Boucher said. “Let them do it through the winter because we don’t have boats going in and out, there’s not a lot of traffic and they are not blocking the view.” Addressing Munger he added, “I realize there is some contention (with) what your committee wants.”

Board Chair Michelle Hannan said, “We shouldn’t penalize someone who wants to do business in the winter, in a park that is not usually utilized, to bring more people in and help other businesses in town.”