WAYNE — Profit or preservation?

Residents who spoke at a public forum Tuesday night were divided about the fate of a wooded 118-acre property that’s owned by the town, with some arguing the land should be preserved and others saying it should be sold to the highest bidder.

About 70 people attended the session, which was hosted by the Open Space Committee, formed to research options for the land, which is on House Road and overlooks Wilson Pond.

The town acquired the land in 2016, after its previous owner failed to pay taxes on it for multiple years. Since 2016, the Open Space Committee has been putting together a report about the different benefits from selling or preserving the land. The latest version of their findings is available on the town website and includes five recommendations.

Now the Open Space Committee is preparing to make a final report to the Selectboard. Selectmen, in turn, hope to place a proposal on the ballot for local voters in November, but so far it’s unclear what that proposal will be.

They plan to make a decision Sept. 4, when a warrant will have to be signed for the November election, according to Chairman Don Welsh, who spoke briefly Tuesday night. Then selectmen plan to hold another public forum about the proposal on Oct. 16.

Of more than 20 people who spoke at the forum on Tuesday, about half supported preserving the land in some form, whether by operating it as a town forest or selling it to the Kennebec Land Trust. Some insisted that keeping the land forested would protect wildlife and water quality. People also said those options would draw visitors who enjoy the outdoors and appeal to families who may be looking for a new home.

One resident, Fred Hurley, pointed to a recommendation in the comprehensive plan that the town place 15 percent of undeveloped land in conservation.

“I hope the commission will keep the focus on what’s already been established: 15 percent open space,” Hurley said. “This tract is enormous. … If the property was sold off, and a subdivision was put in, we’d essentially be putting a dam across the (natural) corridor.”

Several speakers spoke highly of the way that Kennebec Land Trust has preserved wild land around Kennebec County and made it accessible to visitors.

Under one of the options proposed by the Open Space Committee, the town would sell the land to the land trust for about $70,000. That would recoup most of the losses the town has suffered since its previous owner stopped paying taxes. Under that option, Kennebec Land Trust also would make $700 in annual payments in lieu of taxes, according to the committee’s report.

“KLT is a known entity,” said another resident, Carol Ladd, on Tuesday night. “They provide stewards for land. They make sure land is kept up. They could make paths and do any number of things we’d like to see in that situation. If we vote to sell outright, we don’t know if anyone is going to buy it and what they would do if they buy it.”

But other residents said they would think about selling the land on the open market. About five people said the town should consider that option, as long as the right conditions are put in place for a sale. They said the income and subsequent tax revenue would help the town achieve other goals in its voter-approved comprehensive plan, such as replacing the fire station, retaining the town’s elementary school and improving the downtown infrastructure.

“The statement that this doesn’t support the items in the comprehensive plan is shortsighted,” said one resident, Peter Davis. “Revenue would help advance those items.”

While Davis said he agrees with the goal of having open land in Wayne, he questioned whether the land on Wilson Pond is actually accessible to visitors, given that it has a steep grade in some places.

In its report, the Open Space Committee has projected that selling the property to the highest bidder would bring a one-time payment of about $275,000. It based that projection on the opinions of several real estate agents, according to Ford Stevenson, chairman of the committee. That option also could bring projected annual tax revenue of $4,675.

The committee also has proposed an option in which some of the land would be sold outright, and the remainder would be preserved.

Later in the meeting, Davis and other residents suggested that the selectmen send multiple proposals to voters in November. Another speaker, Peter Emery, suggested that residents be able to rank their choices when they vote, using the ranked-choice voting method that was approved by Maine voters for statewide elections in 2016.

But another voter, Theresa Kerchner, urged the selectmen to pump the brakes. Kerchner, who is also the executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust, praised the work of the Open Space Committee, but suggested that November is too soon for a vote.

“As a Wayne resident, I feel the process is being rushed,” she said. “I would strongly encourage you not to rush it and create division in town.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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