Two conservation groups have put up $200,000 of their own money to preserve 215 acres in North Yarmouth and Cumberland after roughly the same amount in state bond money was withheld from the project because of a political squabble between Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature.

The Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust and the Royal River Conservation Trust provided $150,000 and $50,000, respectively, to close the deal for Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill, ending months of speculation over whether the prized parcel would be sold privately and developed, or preserved for public enjoyment, said Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust.

Stearns said he expects LePage to make good on the voters’ intent to fund the projects and eventually repay the organization for the unexpected out-of-pocket costs. The decision has forced the group to aggressively raise money so it can continue to pursue other conservation projects.

“I’m doing nothing but raising money for this,” Stearns said. “It will take a huge push for us to pay ourselves back.”

Although the money provided by the groups is $25,000 less than the state bond would have provided, it was enough to allow the project to continue when combined with other fundraising.

The land price was $860,000, but with transactional costs and stewardship funding, the entire project is expected to cost close to $1.1 million, Stearns said. The deal is expected to close in October, he said.

Spanning the border of North Yarmouth and Cumberland, the undeveloped area is centrally located to both towns, and contains a network of trails and a 45-acre pond.

Elected officials in both towns lauded the solution, saying that for years the public clamored for the area to be preserved.

“The Knight’s Pond & Blueberry Hill project has been at the top of our conservation priority list for decades,” Penny Asherman, president of the board of the Chebeague And Cumberland Land Trust, said in a statement. “The Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust, and its partners, whole-heartedly worked together on this project and were willing to make a substantial financial commitment to guarantee that children and adults will be able to have outdoor adventures skating on the pond, hiking through the forests and exploring nature in this beautiful setting forever.”

The decision to provide the funding from both groups’ private coffers, and not from outside donors, shows the difficult position in which conservation groups find themselves after LePage chose to withhold $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bond money that would have been distributed to 32 projects through the Land for Maine’s Future program.

Although the bonds were approved by voters, LePage has discretion over when to issue them, using this power to leverage the state Legislature into allowing more timber cutting on publicly owned forest land, proceeds of which would fund a home heating program for low-income Mainers.

Legislators balked at the timber proposal, and LePage has not budged from his position. This month, the governor took the additional step of freezing $2 million already in the hands of LMF administrators that had been earmarked for legal costs and other expenses, further stalling projects that had already been in the works.

 

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