AUGUSTA — City and Kennebec Land Trust officials say they will seek to move ahead with plans to acquire the 164-acre Howard Hill property, which serves as a scenic backdrop to the State House, though the city’s planned acquisition of it could be delayed because Gov. Paul LePage is withholding bond funding for it and other conservation projects.

City councilors meet Thursday to consider a vote to authorize City Manager William Bridgeo to sign agreements with the Winthrop-based land trust that eventually would turn over ownership of the property to the city with a conservation easement requiring it to remain undeveloped.

However, the city won’t get the land until the land trust pays off a loan it plans to take out for the purchase to replace funds it had been awarded from voter-approved bonds but has not yet received from the Land for Maine’s Future program.

LePage has withheld $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and $5 million approved in 2012. The bond funds include money the Land for Maine’s Future program has approved for 30 projects, including $337,500 to help the Kennebec Land Trust buy the Howard Hill property.

The Portland Press Herald reported Tuesday that LePage also has frozen $2 million in bond money the Land for Maine’s Future program already has on hand.

The Land for Maine’s Future board met Tuesday but didn’t have enough members for a quorum, with three of LePage’s cabinet members not attending.


Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust, said the funding freeze by the governor could affect the Howard Hill project further by preventing the Land for Maine’s Future staff from being able to work on the project.

“The freeze is disappointing because a number of us were receiving messages Land for Maine’s Future staff were starting to review our project,” she said. “But now, staff is unable to have documents reviewed by the Land for Maine’s Future attorney, because it’s clear the program has ground to a halt.”

She said voters consistently support land conservation projects and that it’s frustrating that the governor’s staff has pulled back on participation.

Bridgeo said Tuesday he doesn’t expect the governor’s actions to affect the $1.2 million Howard Hill project directly, at least not any more than his refusal to issue the bonds for it already has.

Bridgeo said the city won’t be able to acquire Howard Hill until the Kennebec Land Trust, which hopes to close on the property in October before its option on it expires, pays off the loan it plans to take out to replace the bond money.

“The council order would authorize me to effect the eventual transfer of the property from the land trust to the city,” Bridgeo said. “That transfer may now no longer take place” until after the loan is paid off, because the land trust wouldn’t be able to transfer property for which it still owes money.


Bridgeo praised the land trust’s board, noting it “deserves praise for the extraordinary measures it has undertaken to preserve this project notwithstanding the loss of the Land for Maine’s Future grant.”

Kerchner said Tuesday the organization hadn’t determined yet how long it would take to pay back the proposed loan to close the Howard Hill funding gap.

She said the nonprofit organization still hopes to be able to pay the loan back with Land for Maine’s Future funds. She said the organization hopes the state Legislature, when it returns to session in January, will be able to address the impasse over the bond funds, and the funds will ultimately go to the projects for which it was awarded, including the Howard Hill project.

“If those funds don’t come to fruition, we’ll have to work on a plan B,” Kerchner said.

The proposed agreement between the land trust and city regarding transfer of the land gives the trust the right to defer conveyance of it to the city until September 2017.

The land trust intends to transfer ownership of the property, as well as a $100,000 “stewardship endowment” it intends to raise to give to the city to help maintain and preserve the property, after it closes on it with landowner Sumner Lipman. The proposed agreement with the city would require the land trust to pay $25,000 of that money to the city on the day the land trust conveys the property to the city and the remaining $75,000 on or before Dec. 31, 2019.


City councilors are scheduled to consider at their meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday authorizing Bridgeo to sign the agreements with the Kennebec Land Trust to eventually acquire the Howard Hill property. The meeting will take place in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Councilors also are scheduled to consider a final vote to approve a proposed Vacant Building Registration Ordinance that would require owners of vacant buildings to register with the city, so officials would be able to contact someone if there are issues that need to be addressed at vacant properties.

Bridgeo said amendments to the ordinance may be introduced by councilors to address concerns about potential unintended consequences of adopting the ordinance.

The ordinance as proposed would require owners of buildings vacant for 60 days or more to obtain a vacant building registration permit from the city and pay a fee — $200 for commercial entities, such as banks, or $100 for individual owners — and to provide contact information of someone in Maine responsible for the property who could respond to building problems and notifications of code violations or other city actions related to the building.

The permits would be valid for six months after which the building owners would have to renew them and pay the permit fee again.

The ordinance was drafted after residents and councilors complained about vacant homes being left unmaintained and unsecured and about not being able to reach anyone responsible for addressing those problems.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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