FAYETTE — The plan to preserve 164 acres of land behind the State House in Augusta is still expected to succeed this year despite losing $337,500 of bond funding as a result of a political fight over the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program.
The Kennebec Land Trust had planned to purchase Howard Hill, privately owned land located between Capitol Street in Augusta and the Hallowell city line, and transfer it to the city of Augusta for public recreational use.
But $337,500 of the $1.2 million needed for the project fell through because Gov. Paul LePage withheld $11.4 million in voter-approved conservation bonds as a bargaining chip to gain support for a plan to increase timber harvesting on state land to pay for energy efficiency programs.
The Kennebec Land Trust now plans to borrow the same amount from Kennebec Savings Bank to replace the bond funding and to ensure the deal closes in October, Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the trust said Sunday at the trust’s annual meeting. The organization will have to pay an estimated $15,000 in interest that it didn’t expect, and it won’t be able to transfer the property to Augusta until the loan is paid off, she said.
Kerchner, in an interview at the annual meeting at Camp Winnebago in Fayette, said $275,000 must still be raised to purchase the property. The land is made up of three parcels owned by Sumner Lipman and two corporations run by him and valued at about $171,000 for tax purposes, according to city assessment records.
Robert Kimber, an outdoor writer and member of the land trust’s advisory board, said he thinks it’s important to keep Howard Hill as undeveloped woods because the state capital should have land that is representative of the state’s forests.
“This is why it’s important for this land to be preserved in Augusta,” he said, “and that the guys in the Legislature look out the window every day and say, this is woods. It’s not a subdivision.”
The Howard Hill project is one of 30 conservation projects approved last year by the Land for Maine’s Future program and potentially put in jeopardy as the result of LePage blocking the voter-approved bonds. The program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of land since 1987, land that must provide public access for recreational activities. Voters approved bonds to finance the program, but LePage has withheld $11.4 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012. The $6.5 million in bonds approved in 2010 have effectively expired, Sarah Demers, the director of Land for Maine’s Future, told board members last month.
Jon Lund, another Kennebec Land Trust advisory board member, said these bonds are vital to conservation projects because usually organizations are unable to come up with the cash needed when potential land acquisitions emerge.
“Despite what some people may say, this is not a program for the elite,” he said. “This is a program that allows everybody to enjoy the outdoors and the good resources, whether or not they have the personal resources to acquire it for themselves.”
Although the Kennebec Land Trust is planning on taking out a loan to replace the expected bond money, Lund said its unlikely that solution would work for other the conservation projects and organizations. He said Howard Hill and the Kennebec Land Trust benefit from being very visible, but banks are more careful in lending out money than they had been in the past.
Lund, the publisher of The Maine Sportsman, previously served as a state senator, a state representative and as the state’s attorney general.
He also said he doesn’t think recent bond blocking by LePage will be a permanent problem for the land conservation program. He anticipates the Legislature will eventually pass a law to take the power to withhold bonds out of a governor’s hands.
The Legislature passed a bill this year to do that for bonds voters authorized for land conservation projects, but the effort to overturn LePage’s veto of the bill fell short in the House of Representatives.
If the Kennebec Land Trust is able to raise the additional $275,000 needed to close on the deal in October, the 164-acre property overlooking the State House will be added to the organization’s more than 5,000 acres of conserved land. Recently, an easement donation from a Vienna couple pushed the trust’s total of land and easements above the 5,000-acre mark.
The couple, Jim and Muffy Floyd, who also attended the land trust’s annual meeting, donated an easement for a 71-acre property around their home. An 11-acre parcel on which their house is located won’t be open to the public, but the other 60 acres are woodland, fields and wetlands available for public access.
Jim Floyd said they decided to donate the easement and will eventually give the entire property to the land trusts, because they want the public to be able to enjoy the land and all of its features, including views of Mount Blue and Sugarloaf and Bigelow mountains.
“We’re very passionate about this piece of land, and we just think there’s value in preserving something because some land should be preserved. I’m not saying all land should be preserved,” he said.
“We just feel that some places should be left alone and other people can enjoy it.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663