AUGUSTA — City councilors voted unanimously Thursday to reaffirm their desire for the city to acquire Howard Hill, despite concerns that accepting it from Kennebec Land Trust could commit the city to spending an undetermined amount money to comply with state regulations.
The city’s acquisition of the 164-acre Howard Hill property requires city and land trust officials to sign a project agreement, required by the state agency which provided some of the money used to buy the largely undeveloped land, to close on the deal. An attorney reviewing the agreement for the city warned part of it could commit the city to spend money to stay in compliance with all current and future Land for Maine’s Future regulations, rules and policies. Those rules would be administered by the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.
Councilors voted to close the deal anyway. They authorized City Manager William Bridgeo to sign the agreement, confirming their previous affirmative vote taken before the details of the agreement were known.
“This reaffirmation is to authorize the city manager to move forward, after we took time to look at language that was brought to our attention about, maybe, a little exposure we could have due to language stating the state” could require work to be done, at city cost, at the property, Mayor David Rollins said before Thursday’s 7-0 vote.
Bridgeo and other city officials said they think there is minimal likelihood the city ever would be forced to spend a large amount of money to comply with future state requirements.
There was no debate or public comment about the issue Thursday.
Last week during a discussion of the issue, At-large Councilor Mark O’Brien expressed concern about the deal obligating the city to pay the cost of complying with unknown future state regulations. He suggested the Kennebec Land Trust could sign an indemnification agreement with the city, agreeing to pay any future costs of complying with state regulations at the property.
Howard Lake, attorney for the land trust and a member of its board of directors, suggested any future unanticipated expenses associated with the property should be the responsibility of the city, as the owner, not the land trust, which raised $925,000 to buy the property to give it to the city, restricted by a conservation easement ensuring it will remain undeveloped forever.
Bridgeo said part of the project agreement the city must sign with the state Land for Maine’s Future program, which is providing $163,500 for the project, would obligate the city to take whatever steps are necessary, including potentially spending city money, to stay in compliance with Land for Maine’s Future regulations and policies.
Bridgeo said because signing that agreement comes with at least some risk that it could obligate the city to spend money in the future, he brought the question of whether to sign the agreement back to the councilors, who previously had authorized him to sign paperwork to close the deal for the land with Kennebec Land Trust, subject to review of the documents by an attorney.
In preparing to close on the deal and accept the gift of the land from the land trust, Bridgeo said, attorney Mike Lane flagged a provision of the project agreement as potentially obligating the city to spend money to stay in compliance with present and future Land for Maine’s Future regulations.
Bridgeo said he continues to believe the positive benefits of the acquisition of Howard Hill, which is heavily wooded and provides a scenic backdrop to the State House, justify some assumption of risk the state might someday require some unanticipated city funding for the property. He said refusing to sign the agreement could jeopardize the entire project.
Bridgeo said state officials said a number of other municipalities have signed similar agreements, with the same requirement, to receive Land for Maine’s Future grants, without objection.
Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the land trust, said in 10 years she’s received only two communications from the Land for Maine’s Future program about new regulations requiring action. One was that each property bought with grant funds from the program have a sign on them, noting the program’s assistance in purchasing each parcel, with the state providing the sign. The other was that an annual report be filed about the land.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647