2015-07-03 / Front Page

City looks to own ‘Pond’

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Mussey Street resident Linda Kelley walks along South Portland’s Greenbelt Trail past invasive phragmite plants in a wetland area known as “Old Joe’s Pond.” City Councilors are considering buying the 3.8-acre property, site of a wildfire last year. (Duke Harrington photo) Mussey Street resident Linda Kelley walks along South Portland’s Greenbelt Trail past invasive phragmite plants in a wetland area known as “Old Joe’s Pond.” City Councilors are considering buying the 3.8-acre property, site of a wildfire last year. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — An old drainage pond in South Portland’s Ferry Village that was, for decades, a popular ice skating attraction during winter months, but has largely dried up in recent decades due to development, is on the city council’s wish list for purchase and preservation.

At a June 22 workshop, the city council gave authorization to City Manager Jim Gailey to negotiate with property owner Ralph Sama to purchase the site — a collection of six lots that total 3.8 acres, and assessed by the town at $25,200 — known locally as “Old Joe’s Pond.”

In the meantime, the city has signed an agreement with Sama that will allow municipal workers to mow down large stands of Phragmites australis — an invasive, reed-like plant introduced to North America from Europe — which has grown to dominate the site in recent years. It’s hoped that work will create a buffer zone of sorts between the flammable P. australis and homes along North Marriner and Harriet Streets.

An overview of the “Old Joe’s Pond” site in South Portland’s Ferry Village shows both the 3.8-acre site the city is looking to purchase, as well as the so-called “paper streets,” first laid out in 19th century subdivision of the area. (South Portland Planning Department courtesy image) An overview of the “Old Joe’s Pond” site in South Portland’s Ferry Village shows both the 3.8-acre site the city is looking to purchase, as well as the so-called “paper streets,” first laid out in 19th century subdivision of the area. (South Portland Planning Department courtesy image) On May 26, 2014, the pond property was the scene of a large fire fueled by the P. australis, which sent thick plumes of black smoke billowing 50 feet into the air.

“It was a ferocious fire. It was like Roman candles going off,” Councilor Claude Morgan said, describing the appearance of 8-foot-tall P. australis set aflame. “That nobody lost their life was a small miracle. That property owners didn’t lose their homes was another small miracle.”

According to Sama, who says as a property owner he was later copied on documents from the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, the fire was set by three juveniles, later prosecuted for the crime.

Although firefighters reportedly got the blaze under control in less than 20 minutes, the incident was a near disaster for local homeowners.

“We were told by the fire department that if it were not for our neighbors spraying the side of our home with garden houses, the whole home likely would have gone up in flames and we would have lost everything,” said North Marriner Street resident Glenn Nerbak.

Ultimately, the only loss was some melted siding on the Nerbak home.

Nerbak, who bought his home in 1999, said kids still skated on the pond at that time. Over subsequent years, however, he has waged a largely losing battle with the invasive plants as they have encroached ever closer to his home.

“I’ve tried pulling it out, but it seems to grow back as quickly as it’s removed,” he said.

Although all councilors said they supported acquiring the property as an act of historic and environmental protection, some were dismayed that the city would deign to maintain Sama’s property.

“I understand it has to be done, but I don’t understand why he city is paying for it. That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Councilor Brad Fox said.

“We thought there was a public safety issue here,” Gailey replied. “That type of invasive grass has really taken over this area. When it caught on fire you could see it for miles. That’s really threatened the homes down around that area.”

“It’s a tinderbox for many months of the year,” said Morgan, in support of that view.

Sama, working through his company, Home Construction Finance LLC, purchased the land in 1991. Although records have been uncovered showing city interest in buying the property and creating a park out of it as far back as the 1930s, Sama said he had zero competition or opposition when he bought the property.

Afterward, Sama built, by his recollection, “10 to 15 houses” on the periphery of the pond. That building spree ended at about the time of the national recession in 2008, Sama said, and he’s only recently rekindled an interest in developing what he can of the remaining land.

Sama said he hopes to build “another four to eight units” in coming years, depending on what the Department of Environmental Protection will allow, while reaching a deal to put what remains in public hands.

“I want to both preserve my property rights — I want to do what I can do — and I want to preserve a large chunk of the property, either through some purchase, or donation, or land swap,” he said, adding that his intent from the early 1990s was to eventually create a park of the undeveloped pond area named for his late father.

Some of the area, however, already is in city hands. The area was subdivided in the late 19th century and paper streets still bisect the area, leading off Oak and Second streets. Although Gailey said he could find no evidence the city retains the Second Street extension, it does still hold the unbuilt part of Oak Street “in fee simple,” he said.

The city also retains a right of way to the unbuilt section of First Street, where it maintains sewer lines.”

Still, city councilors seemed keen on buying the remaining land outright — Gailey said the city is interested in about 2 acres of Sama’s six lots — while not waiting for the grass to grow under its feet, so to speak, in doing so.

That’s partly due to the fact that the pond has been shrinking. In his position paper on the topic, Gailey blamed loss of the pond area on development by Sama and others over the past 30 years. How- ever, he also noted that construction of a sewer line through the area in the 1980s, which employed a so-called “French drain” of stone, “resulted in redirection of groundwater in the area.”

Councilor Tom Blake also pointed to more recent construction of the city’s Greenbelt Trail, which separates Old Joe’s Pond from the ballfields next to the former Henley School, now the Henley Schoolhouse Condominiums.

“You have standing water there. It’s a stink hole and a public safety hazard,” Blake said, saying the city should place culverts under the trail to allow runoff from the ballfields to again flow freely into the pond area.

Blake, who pushed to get the issue on the workshop agenda, said he supports buying the property outright, in order to preserve what’s left of the pond.

“We’re at a point now where we either let it go, or we try to save it,” he said. “In my opinion, that area cannot take any more houses. The right thing (to so) is acquiring it and reclaiming it.”

The balance of the council agreed.

“I think it’s one those opportunities where it’s almost too late,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said. “If we don’t step up and do some reclaiming, it’s going to be lost forever. Let’s just do it before it’s too late.”

However, Councilor Patti Smith, though also in strong support of the concept, tapped the brakes on the council drive. She said more questions need to be answered regarding the site’s current condition and the cost to maintain and preserve it, as well as the cost of fully eradicating the P. australis, and what should be planted in its stead.

Still, Blake said the city has plenty of money to work with. The city’s so-called “land bank,” created at the same time it established a conservation commission, was set up specifically to fund purchase of open space, he said.

According to Gailey, that account, fed from the sale of city property, currently holds $685,000. Once the city fi- nalizes sale of the former National Guard Armory building — slated for redevelopment into a café and gas station — the bank should surge to nearly $900,000, Blake said.

Additionally, the city also has a wetland compensation fund, managed by the conservation commission, which developers must pay into when they disturb wetland areas. That account, Blake said, currently stands at $72,500.

Sama said he intends to complete a new wetland study of his property, in order to update the last DEP permit he obtained about 20 years ago. Once that is in hand, he and Gailey will begin to confer on terms for transferring some portion of the site to the city. Once that is done, and after Gailey has obtained answers to Smith’s questions, the matter will return the council for further consideration.

However, at Morgan’s urging, councilors agreed those talks will likely take place behind closed doors, in executive session.

“That’s in order to protect the city’s negotiating position,” he said.

Meanwhile, more work may need to be done to document the history of the site.

Gailey’s position paper claims the pond is “thousands of years old,” and that it was “used by Native Americans and early settlers for trout fishing, bathing and clothes cleaning.” However, at least two members of the South Portland Historical Society have pooh-poohed that notion, calling it apocryphal at best.

Blake said it was simply a natural collection point for runoff from the Meeting House Hill area and most agree the pond was never that deep, with no natural outlet or feeding system. Trout was doubtfully ever part of its abundance of wildlife, although great blue heron and deer were reportedly seen there.

According to Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of South Portland Historical Society, the pond was named for an actual person, although no one is quite sure whom.

“I have not seen any documentation that establishes when it took on the name, or for whom,” she said, adding that there were “at least two Josephs” who owned land “in that exact area” in the city’s early days.

What is known is that the site was a popular skating spot, with the city sometimes augmenting the natural water level. Blake said the fire department used to fill it in just before the winter freeze during his tenure, while the 1957-58 annual report of the city describes even more extensive work.

“An area 200 ft. square at Old Joe’s Pond, off Pine St., was bulldozed to a depth of 30 inches to make a skating pond,” the report reads. “Two-inch pipe was laid underground for a distance of 250 feet to flood and maintain it. The cost of the actual rink was financed by the city council, with the piping and labor furnished by the commission.”

That and the apparent need for a “No Dumping” sign at the end of Second Street indicate a bevy of archeological discoveries to be found if the pond is ever reclaimed.

But Russ Lunt, a Buchanan Street resident, could have told anyone that.

“We used to go jump in that thing when I was a kid back in the ‘60s,” he said. “I don’t know if it was shark-infested, but it had everything else but.”

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