2015-11-27 / Community

South Portland secures nine-acre easement

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After nearly a year of wrangling, South Portland has achieved a “dream come true” in an agreement to permanently preserve a 9.3- acre parcel known as Dow’s Woods.

In January, developer Dan White of H.W. Land Co. asked the city council to rezone three lots totaling 11.75 acres at 590 Highland Ave., located behind a row of houses across from South Portland High School, allowing him to build 32 residential units. The council rejected that idea, despite the offer of an easement on the Dow’s Woods portion of the property, saying it was simply too many houses for the area.

In September, White returned with a reduced development plan of 15 condominium units, asking in return that the city pay $140,000 to obtain the conservation easement. Although Dow’s Woods is listed on South Portland’s 2001 Open Space Plan as the sixth “most valuable” parcel to preserve in the city, councilors deadlocked on the proposal, with some saying the city should own the property outright.

There also was concern about proposed restrictions banning dogs, mountain bikes and motorized vehicles from the property.

Those restrictions remained in the offer presented at Monday’s city council workshop, as did the request of $140,000 from the South Portland Land Bank. That fund, created from the sale of city property and dedicated to the preservation of open space, currently holds nearly $650,000.

In a January 2014 review, the bulk of the lot to be set aside in a conservation easement was valued at $300,000 by Sacobased Sterling Appraisal Co. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the Dow family was firm on getting $300,000 for the lot in any outright sale, and would write the nodogs restriction into any deed.

“So, we’d be really no further ahead of ourselves and maybe a couple of dollars lighter if we went in the direction of trying to purchase this parcel outright,” Gailey said.

On the other hand, not buying a conservation easement meant “rolling the dice” on the future of the site, Gailey said.

However, while the latest offer leaves ownership of Dow’s Woods to an eventual condominium association to be created once development is complete, it does give the South Portland Land Trust control of a permanent conservation easement over the property.

“It really is a very special location,” land trust president Steve Jocher said, in support of the sale.

To justify the dog and bike restrictions, White and the Dow family presented the council with a 47-page document laying out both the right of the council to use land bank funds for purchase of easements, as well as ownership, and the various species of plant and animal life that call the site home.

“I am delighted with this. I shall keep it forever,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said, holding up her copy of the report. “It answered all of our questions.”

“That really informs people of what is going on in terms of this special habitat,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “Previously, we didn’t have that knowledge. Between that and [the developer] coming back three times to the council, we’ve uncovered a lot of reasons why we feel we need to protect this particular parcel.

“This is kind of a dream come true. It’s really why the land bank exists,” Smith said.

According to the report, wildlife seen on the site includes “ducks of various kinds, Canada geese, variety of song birds (sparrows, finches, blue jays, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, tufted titmice, nuthatches), downy and pileated woodpeckers, crows, red fox, deer, raccoons, opossums, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, coyotes, rabbits, woodchucks, mice, turtles, fisher cats, wild turkeys, pheasants, owls, frogs (bull, green and “peepers”), brown snakes and garter snakes.”

“Increased development in South Portland has already shrunk the habitats for many species of wildlife and cut them off from resources in the rest of the ecosystem,” Barbara Dow Nucci said in her statement on behalf of the estate, arguing for the creation of a nature preserve on the site, as opposed to a city park.

“This parcel has been a priority for preservation for many years,” she wrote. “If this opportunity is missed, it will be an inestimable loss for our city. It is vital that Dow’s Woods be protected and preserved in perpetuity for the wildlife as well as for future generations of South Portlanders to enjoy.”

Use of the land bank to buy an easement rather than outright ownership would reportedly be a first for the city. However, councilors voiced unanimous support for the developer ceding control of the easement to the land trust.

“I’m satisfied that the language is strong enough that the owners of the [condo] association really aren’t going to have any involvement in what’s going on. It’s separated sufficiently,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott, one of the naysayers at the September meeting.

“I feel very comfortable in moving this forward at this point,” she said.

“I have been the most vocal critic of this particular deal. I withdraw my reservations,” Councilor Claude Morgan agreed. “I am now satisfied that the city has performed its due diligence. I am convinced this action is responsible.”

Mayor Linda Cohen said she also had “come around” on both the concept of gaining an easement only, with pre-set restrictions.

“I’ve been thinking, with everything that’s going on in the world, it would be really nice to have a place in the city of South Portland where people can go and just be quiet with their thoughts and not have to be intruded upon by dogs and bikes and lots of noise,” she said.

Gailey said the purchase agreement will likely feature on the agenda for the Dec. 9 council meeting, once it has been cleared by the city’s attorney, Sally Daggett.

“Ultimately, it wouldn’t be acted on until there’s a closing between the developers and the [property owners], so that could be two to three months down the road,” Gailey said.

The purchase and sale agreement on the property reportedly stipulates finalization of subdivision approval by the planning board for the proposed condo units before the deed is transferred.

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