CHINA — Janet Preston of the China Board of Selectmen and resident Lindsey Harwath are hoping to drum up opposition to selling a town-owned, 39.3-acre parcel of land on Lakeview Drive.

Preston was one of the two dissenting selectmen in the 3-2 vote to sell the land at the Dec. 7 board meeting, along with Irene Belanger.

Instead of selling the land, Preston and Harwath, a Democrat who ran for House District 79 in last November’s election, are making an effort to inform the town about an idea to turn the land into a park with trails.

“I got excited about the idea of trails because of COVID,” Preston said. “People need to get outside and have things to do.”

The Board of Selectmen voted to sell the lot on tax map 63, lot 8, but the board needs local authority to sell the land.

The topic is to be on the warrant for the May 18 municipal election, which is expected to be by written vote. The warrant for the election will not be finalized until late February or early March.

The subject has been reported by the Town Line newspaper, but Preston and Harwath are unsure of their reach thus far.

“It’s hard to know until the vote happens,” Preston said.

Preston and Harwath started an email newsletter and are working on a Facebook to provide information on possible revenue from selling the property and the potential costs associated with creating a trail.

If voters choose to keep the land, Preston and Harwath have heard suggestions to use the tract for hiking trails, a picnic area, children’s playground, hockey rink and community garden.

Preston suggested creating a system of “nonmotorized” trails for hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. The trail system Preston proposed is the least-expensive option of all the ideas because it does not require heavy machinery or construction.

“A lot of suggestions have been made on what to do with the property, but the original idea was for ‘nonmotorized’ trails, and part of that is because it’s literally the lowest cost thing that you could put on the property,” Harwath said.

“I think there’s a lot of comments from other people about how extraordinary our taxes are going to go up by this, but that’s just not true.”

Preston was involved with the Lake Access Feasibility Committee that five years ago was asked to find a property in China to create a public beach for residents. The committee settled on the Candlewood Cabins property, and the piece of property across the street, which the town owns, is part of the property. The town voted down buying it, and Candlewood sold the parts of the land separately.

Janet Preston, left, and Lindsey Harwath, right, are hoping to generate support for the development of a 39-acre property into a park in China. The women are walking along the southern edge of the property, which is off Lakeview Drive, adjacent to The Cottages by the shoreline with China Lake. The women are walking along a path that leads into the property behind them on Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The land became the town’s in November 2016. The land’s owners, officially called Wachusett Properties Inc., could not find a way to develop the land because of its moist composition. Sales did not go through, so the company donated the land to the town. Residents voted to accept the property, so they also have to vote to sell it.

“Because the land was acquired by a town meeting vote, a town meeting vote would need to happen to sell it,” China Town Manager Becky Hapgood said. “It should be a resident decision, and that’s how it’s going to be, because they have to vote for it going to sale.”

Selectmen Chairperson Ron Breton wrote in an email the town’s two parks — Thurston Park and the China School’s Forest — are already available for town use and are being supported by TIF and property tax funds.

The town has owned the 39 acres for the past four years. Prior boards of selectmen have proposed building a community center, police station or rescue and fire station on the property, all of which were voted down by residents.

“My position: If we are not going to do anything with the lot, then it should be sold so that it can be placed back into a taxable property,” Breton said. “At present, the parcel is not being used for anything.”

Harwath served previously on the Thurston Park committee. Her in-laws are buying a house on the property next to the town-owned site. After conducting a walkthrough with a real estate agent and seeing potential in the land, Harwath caught wind of Preston’s idea that came before the Board of Selectmen.

“I knew about it and Janet knew about it,” Harwath said, “and then she proposed it at the Board of Selectmen meeting and emailed some friends to tell them what happened. It’s actually pretty interesting because it was completely independent.”

Selectwoman Janet Preston and Lindsey Harwath are hoping to generate support for the development of 39 acres into a park in China. The property is pictured Wednesday as a vehicle travels Lakeview Drive, near The Cottages on the shore to China Lake. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

There is interest beyond those who want a park. The board of the China Lake Condominium Association has also contacted the town about acquiring the land. In a letter to the town of China, the association wrote about a joint alliance with the town to work together to create a recreational area on the land.

“This would allow more open space to remain in the town and passive recreation to be developed while in turn protecting the surrounding areas of China Lake,” the China Lake Condo Association wrote.

“The association in turn would work with the town on a modest land tax for keeping it open space and passive recreation.”

Preston compiled information regarding the potential tax revenue of the land, both if it were sold in its entirety or if the town sold to a developer who would subdivide the land and put a house on each lot.

Using Tarybelu Lane as a comparable development, Preston said the average tax benefit would be $12.63 per person per year.

Preston suggested the town apply for funding through a grant program via the state’s Recreational Trails Program of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. The grant program could pay up to 80% of the cost, and part of the tax increment financing that Central Maine Power Co. pays is set aside for community projects services.

“There’s clearly wording in their purpose for trails,” Preston said. “It has many purposes.”

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