2013-07-05 / Front Page

Land owners speak up about trails

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – When asked about the reasons they moved to Cape Elizabeth, many town residents respond with a short list of common answers. One reason is generally the excellent reputation of the town’s schools. Another is the rural and quiet character of the town, in large part a result of the roughly 1,100 acres of land and 17 miles of trail that make up the Cape Elizabeth greenbelt.

This year, members of the Cape Elizabeth Conservation Commission are working to update the 2001 greenbelt plan. Their goal is to connect the 18 trails in use and create new trails to help residents walk anywhere in town without needing to use roadways.

However, some of the proposed trails, especially in the southern portion of town, have caused concern among property owners worried about safety issues, increased tourist traffic and invasion of their privacy.

The conservation commission held two public forums to gather public opinion on the greenbelt plan update. The first, held in May, focused on the proposed trails in the northern portion of town and drew public comment from three residents.

The second forum, held in June, focused on the southern portion of the plan. About 200 residents attended the meeting at the town fire station. According to the draft meeting minutes, 38 residents spoke at the forum. Many of those speakers oppose two specific trails in the Surfside Avenue and Two Lights Road neighborhoods, although a few voiced expressed support for specific trails and the mission of the conservation commission.

Conservation Commission member Garvan Donegan, who also is president of the Maine Association of Conservation Commissions, said he was not surprised by the massive public response to the ongoing plan.

“It’s a visible issue and it’s an issue that touches everybody in the community. It’s a planning process. I come from the perspective that it’s a good thing. I was happy to see folks involved,” Donegan said.

The two most controversial trails that drew the majority of public discussion are located about two miles apart on the southern end of town.

Pilot Point resident Julie Wooden said the Surfside Avenue trail would pass within feet of her house. Although Wooden recognizes the trail would provide pedestrians with beautiful views along the rocky coast, she has concerns about pedestrian safety on a steep cliff, as well as privacy for homeowners in the neighborhood.

Wooden said she circulated a petition letter that 80 of her neighbors signed, asking the town not to follow through with the proposed trail.

At the town council meeting Monday, June 10, council Chairman James Walsh criticized the “not in my neighborhood” attitude from some residents. Walsh lives near the Stonegate Trail in the northern side of town, and said the only inconvenience he has ever experienced was giving lost tourists a ride back to Fort Williams Park.

“As a member of this town council, I represent all citizens, not just one neighborhood. It’s very frustrating because I just don’t get it,” Walsh said.

However, Wooden said the issues she and her neighbors have with the trail near her home go beyond a “not in my neighborhood” attitude. She says they have practical concerns and believe the trail does not fulfill the mission of the greenbelt update.

“It’s 1,400 feet that goes around six homes, and it doesn’t connect to anything. We describe it as a path from nowhere to nowhere,” Wooden said. “We just don’t think it meets the guidelines of the greenbelt vision, which is in rural areas and continuous paths.”

Residents in the Two Lights Road neighborhood say their primary concern with the proposed trail is the prospect of more tourists traversing through their neighborhood.

Kelly McDonald of Lighthouse Point Road spoke at the June public forum to tell the commission she already deals with tourists taking pictures in her front yard, frightening her children.

While most of the greenbelt trails are used by locals, residents near Two Lights Road said tourists are frequently in the area at the Lobster Shack restaurant or Two Lights State Park, and their use of the proposed trail would change the character of the neighborhood.

According to Donegan, the two trails that caused so much controversy are relatively low on the priority list for the conservation commission. The commission is still exploring 30 possible trails, but he said the high priority expansions it has identified connect Cape Elizabeth’s flagship areas together with existing trails.

For example, Donegan identified two proposed connector trails bridging the Winnick Woods area with Spurwink Avenue near the Purpoodock Club as high priorities for the commission, as well as expanding trails surrounding Great Pond and in the Gull Crest area.

However, even if the two proposed trails are ultimately scrapped, the controversy surrounding the greenbelt planning process is not likely to disappear completely.

A few residents, including Richard Carlson of Eastman Road, have accused the town of “putting the cart before the horse” by including proposed trails on publicly available maps before discussing them with landowners.

Town planner Maureen O’Meara said at the public forums the town has not taken any property by eminent domain, preferring instead to work with willing private landowners to expand the greenbelt trails. Because of that process, Councilor Caitlin Jordan said marking proposed trails is a futile exercise in the areas where landowners do not want to sell.

“There seems to be no reason for the town to be considering or planning anything if the property owner isn’t willing to deal with the town,” Jordan said at the June 11 meeting.

Town Manager Michael McGovern said it is unrealistic for the town to talk to all property owners before marking proposed trails, and that practice would affect the transparency of the committee’s work.

“I think the community has an obligation and commitment to do planning. If you’re looking at and considering certain parcels, I think the public has a right to know that,” McGovern said.

The conservation commission will meet next at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 8 on the second floor of town hall. Donegan said the commission will reflect on the comments of individuals who spoke at the recent public forums, as it continues to work on its draft for the greenbelt plan. He hopes to submit the draft to the town council in the fall.

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