2013-07-19 / Community

Cape trails in limbo still

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – Cape Elizabeth’s Conservation Commission tackled head-on the issues upset property owners have raised with the proposed expansion of the town’s greenbelt trails. However, it stopped short of deciding which proposed trails would be included in the plan it sends to the town council and which would be scrapped.

More than 30 residents packed a conference room in Cape Elizabeth Town Hall July 9, with some attendees forced to sit or stand in the hallway while others sat on desks in the room. The meeting was the commission’s first since hundreds of residents attended two public forums held in May and June to review the plans.

Town Planner Maureen O’Meara prepared a memo for the commission with six bullet points of basic assumptions some property owners in town had called into question. The commission discussed issues that included whether the greenbelt needed to expand at all, whether trails needed to connect to every neighborhood and whether property owners should be able to be able to keep proposed trails crossing their property from draft plans.

Although commission members offered their opinions on each of the issues residents had raised, they were able to review only about a third of their 17-page draft plan, and did not discuss specifics about individual trails. The commission adjourned the meeting at 9:30 p.m. after two and a half hours.

Most residents at Tuesday’s meeting took issue with two specific trails located in the Surfside Road and Two Lights Road areas, respectively. Residents raised concerns about safety, tourist traffic and invasion of privacy, both in the public forums and at the meeting.

Conservation Commission member Garvan Donegan said in an interview June 28 the two controversial trails would likely be low on the priority list for the commission because they do not help achieve the goal of interconnecting all the town’s trails into one network.

However, Penny Jordan, owner of Jordan’s Farm on Wells Road and chairman of Cape Farm Alliance, said the issue goes beyond individual trails to a larger problem with violating the rights of private property owners. Jordan argued the commission should discuss any proposed trails crossing private property with landowners before a draft is produced.

“Land owner rights are paramount,” Jordan said in an interview Monday, July 15. “As long as you’re paying taxes and you’re in compliance with town ordinances, your requests should be listened to and acted upon.”

Town Manager Michael McGovern said the town has, in its four decades of greenbelt planning, only worked with willing property owners, never taking any land by eminent domain. But it needs plans to include all desired trails in order to maintain transparency in the process by discussing all plans out in the open.

McGovern said attention to transparency is the “bedrock of how we must operate as a municipal government,” and suggestions of giving individuals the right to veto plans before they reach the public eye “are not in keeping with the traditions of participatory democracy.”

Former town council chairman Sara Lennon spoke up during the meeting’s public comment session to offer opinions on how the commission should proceed, culled from experience, she said, of matters in which the town council “overreached” during her time there.

Lennon urged the commission to make a decision separately on each individual trail “sooner rather than later” to ease tension created in town, which she saw as counterproductive to “the good feeling and good work” the commission intended at the beginning of the process.

Jordan also said in an interview after the meeting she believes members of the conservation commission “have their heart in the right place and want to do the right thing.” She believes the commission will discuss the individual trails at the next meeting, with a full seven-member contingent. Commission members Mitch Wacksman and John Plainensek were absent from the July meeting.

Not every member who spoke at the meeting did so to oppose specific trails or to criticize the commission. A handful of speakers voiced their support for the mission of the greenbelt and the expansion into more Cape Elizabeth neighborhoods.

Betsy French of Pilot Point Road said she has collected more than 120 signatures in her neighborhood from fellow supporters. She said the project has “put us in touch with many who support building a more connected, sharing community of good will.”

The next scheduled meeting of the conservation commission is Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Cape Elizabeth Town Hall. Commission members will also take part in a site walk July 30 in the Two Lights Road neighborhood to get a better sense of terrain in the area.

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