2016-12-30 / Community

City signs short-term lease renewal for Bug Light

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The majority of South Portland’s Bug Light Park will remain open to the public, at least through June 30.

The city council on Dec. 19 signed a new lease agreement for five acres of the park, owned by Portland Pipe Line Corp. Although previous lease deals, which grant public use of the property in forgiveness of $34,676 in annual property taxes, have been for five years, the current lease only runs for six months. The city has leased the property since 1996 and the current agreement is the fourth renewal of the deal, which was bumped up from three to five acres in 2006. The new lease also strikes a provision, in place from the beginning, that gave the city right of first refusal should Portland Pipe Line choose to sell the land.

“It is important to note this would not prevent the land from being sold to the city. However, (Portland Pipe Line) would not be required to provide notice of sale and the city would lose its right of first offer,” interim City Manager Don Gerrish wrote in a memo to the council. “Staff has asked the company if the lease could be extended longer than six months, considering the 90- day notice to terminate provision already included in the lease agreement. The company responded with a general statement that current circumstances will not allow them to execute a longer term agreement.

“This is their proposal to us. So, if we agree to it, they will agree to it,” Gerrish said.

South Portland is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Portland Pipe Line over its Clear Skies Ordinance, which banned transport of "tar sands" oil through South Portland. To date, South Portland has spent more than $700,000 in attorney fees defending the ordinance.

According to Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, June 30 also will bring expiration of a separate lease deal on Portland Pipe Line lands over which the city had been allowed to build its Greenbelt Trail.

“We’ll be looking to renew both of these agreements that that time,” Reny said.

“In spite of the fact that we have a lawsuit, we have multiple agreements and easements that continue on to the mutual benefit of both parties,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “We have so many relationships at so many levels, including the lawsuit. It’s complicated, but grown-ups can do this. We can compartmentalize some aspects of our disagreements and play them out in a law court, while continuing to have relationships at other levels.

“So, these two things can happen at the same time,” Morgan said.

However, Councilor Eben Rose said he opposed the lease as not needed. The land at stake, he noted, is primarily new growth wooded land located between the Liberty Ship Memorial and the Portland Pipe Line terminal pier.

“I’m very much opposed to this,” Rose said. “We are talking five acres that is undeveloped, unimproved land. I’m not sure many people even realize that’s part of Big Light Park. So, I don’t see any benefit right now to extending this lease. I really don’t. There’s some $30,000 in taxes that’s not going into our coffers. Meanwhile, they’re suing this city for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They really don’t have to do that. So, I’m not happy about that at all and I don’t understand why they would take away the provision for right of first refusal.”

Rose also suggested nefarious underpinnings of the property.

“There is a much deeper history of how Portland Pipe Line acquired this property,” Rose said. “I know their deed does not exist at the county registry. But that’s a long story.”

“I think we’d be losing the best part of the park,” said Councilor Sue Henderson. “I think it’s important that we have some relatively un-groomed, undeveloped space. It’s part of nature and it makes that whole part of land exquisitely beautiful. I think it would be a terrible tragedy to lose this piece of land. It would destroy Big Light Park.”

Henderson said Portland Pipe Line reducing the lease to six months should be taken by the council as “an incredibly hostile act.”

“It is somewhat confusing,” Councior Maxine Beecher agreed. “At the same time, I have a tendency to think it means they’re getting even with us.”

Under questioning from Beccher, City Attorney Sally Daggett said Portland Pipe Line would no longer have to give the city an opportunity to make an offer, nor would it have to advise the city of any impending sale.

“They could sell the property in any manner they deem appropriate,” she said. “With the 90-day notice provision, this could end up being a three-month lease.”

However, Gerrish said the 90-day notice provision of the lease meant that, even under the previous five-year deals, it could have effectively revoked a first-right offer simply by terminating the lease.

Rose suggested the council consider taking the park land from Portland Pipe Line by eminent domain.

“This is something eminent domain was expressly created for,” he said. “This would clearly be a public benefit. This is fully within our rights as a city.”

“I absolutely don’t want to go down that path. That’s like a shot across the bow,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “We need to keep our relationship with Portland Pipe Line as cordial as we possibly can.”

The council rejected Rose’s motion to explore eminent domain and instead agreed to sign the updated lease.

Portland Pipeline officials did not return a request for comment.

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