2014-11-07 / Front Page

City council denies land sale

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Citing fears that a land purchase offer made by the owner of South Portland’s last working farm could actually be a stealth development deal in disguise, the city council on Monday refused to part with two city-owned parcels.

In May, Stan Cox, owner of the 18-acre Cox farm, located at 876 Highland Ave., offered to buy two vacant lots abutting his property. One, at 68 Hillcrest Ave., measures 1,742 square feet (0.04 acres), while the other, at 21 Dresser Road, is 3,484 square feet (0.08 acres). They are assessed by the city at a combined $9,500. In a July 2012 vote, the planning board listed both lots among 22 city-owned parcels it said should be put up for sale.

Cox initially offered $10,000 with an offer to also sell the city a conservation easement on the front five acres of his property. Proceeds from the conservation easement would have been funneled into building repairs on the farm, he said. But when the city offer fell short of Cox’s perceived market value for the easement, he pulled that part of his offer, instead putting $28,000 on the table for the two vacant lots.

On Monday, following three separate council workshops since May, in addition to private negotiations with City Manager Jim Gailey, Cox submitted his final offer. He’d give $28,000 for both lots, or, $25,000 with a deed restriction barring a residential structure on either lot, or, $23,000 with a 26-foot height restriction on any other type of building he might put there.

In a 3-4 vote, the council said no to all three offers.

Fueling that denial was fear that Cox might be setting the stage for subdividing his property.

According to maps created by the city planning office, Cox could build between eight and 16 subdivision lots on the back 11 acres of his farm, depending on configurations, or 24 condominium units. Access to those lots would be through an existing “paper street” sandwiched between the Dresser Road and Hillcrest Avenue properties.

“I can’t be blind and say this doesn’t look like a development proposal,” said Mayor Gerard Jalbert.

“To me this looks like a classic development plan, where a developer gains access to a much larger parcel by first acquiring a vacant one,” he said.

“I would hate to have you read my fortune,” said Cox, after the vote. “You could be no more wrong in your statements. I wouldn’t sell an inch of this property. To think this is a scheme from getting a development in there, you guys are so far out of touch. That property will be there as long as we can hold it.”

Although he swore off personally subdividing the farm, in his family since 1939, Cox said the city was not offering enough to create a conservation easement designed to last beyond his lifetime.

Within his lifetime, Cox said, he ultimately found disfavor with the public access rights attached to any conservation easement.

“To me, it’s a beautiful farm,” he said. “It’s the last farm in the city. We’re dead-set against making it a park.”

Cox also did not want total building restrictions on the two vacant lots, he said, acknowledging that he might one day want to build an access road or driveway there, or perhaps some sort of small shed, or outbuilding.

“What is small is all in interpretation,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “It is indeed a horse farm now. A shed could be a 50-footby 200-foot building.”

Under questioning from Blake, Gailey said the paper street located between the Hillcrest Avenue and Dresser Road lots was last reviewed by South Portland in 1997. At that time, the city elected to retain its access rights for 20 years.

“That’s coming up in 2017. That’ll be here before we know it,” Gailey said.

However, the city only has access rights to the theoretical street, not a “fee interest” in the property. If the city decides in 2017 against retaining rights to the road, it would not likely go to Cox, should he own the property on either side. Instead, it would likely revert to the original developers of the Hillcrest subdivision, Gailey said.

Still, he added, Cox would have “a legal process” by which to gain interest in the property strip.

That possibility seemed to loom large over Jalbert, who said any proposal to subdivide the Cox farm would “have this room filled,” with protesters. Although Jalbert chose not to stand for reelection on Nov. 4, he seemed to envision public reaction to one of his very last votes.

“If 10 years from now this becomes a development, the people will ask, where was the city council on Nov. 3, 2014? Why wasn’t it doing its job to do due diligence?”

Jalbert voted down the sale to Cox, as did Councilors Blake, Melissa Linscott and Patti Smith.

“The benefit of selling this to the Cox family has more weight with the conservation easement there,” Linscott said. “Otherwise, why bother?”

Voting for the sale were Councilors Maxine Beecher, Linda Cohen and Michael Pock.

All three said Cox’s offer was far above what the city would likely reap from an open bid.

“I don’t feel we should be speculating about what the Cox family may be interested in doing with their property,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to put us in a position of saying, if you want to do this [sale], you have to give up rights to your personal property.”

Both Cohen and Beecher said they, however, were disappointed that the conservation easement — a big factor in early discussions with Cox — was excised from the final offer.

Still, Pock took a more practical view.

“You either get one thing [easements] or the other [money],” he said. “What happens to this property after he buys it is really none of our concern. And, if anyone ever does want to build on that, they’re going to have to go through the planning board anyway, given the lot size.”

Blake noted that even if Cox does not subdivide the farm property, he could put a house on the Dresser Road lot. Gailey agreed the planning board could approve residential construction on a “substandard lot,” although it’s never before given the green flag to a lot so small. About 4,300 square feet, he said, is the smallest lot ever given the OK for home construction. Still, Blake said if Cox could obtain the paper street and join it to the two lots, he’d have a conforming lot of record.

For his part, Cox continued to maintain his disinterest in developing either his farm or the two vacant lots, apart from possible driveways and outbuildings.

“You’ve made your decision,” he told the council, “but your assumptions are so far out of whack that . . . well, that’s all I have to say.”

Return to top