Cape Elizabeth council may reconsider financial support for land trust

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CAPE ELIZABETH — A dispute with the Town Council over the route of the planned Shore Road Pathway could cost the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust a $350,000 allocation.

It also may jeopardize the entire pathway project.

The council on June 13 unanimously approved the allocation to help the trust acquire 63 acres of open space adjoining Robinson Woods.

But councilors will revisit their decision on Monday, July 11, after trust officials balked at a town request to allow the pathway on land owned by the trust.

Under Town Council rules, any councilor who votes affirmatively on an item may request reconsideration at the next meeting. Four councilors – Caitlin Jordan, Jessica Sullivan, Anne Swift-Kayatta and Jim Walsh – requested the item be reconsidered in a June 21 memo to Council Chairman David Sherman.

As an addendum to the June 13 vote, the council asked to meet with CELT for a “respectful discussion” to consider allowing part of the Shore Road Pathway to cross the Robinson Woods property.

The land trust board was asked for access to Robinson Woods in 2008 and unanimously denied that request in 2009.

On June 20, CELT representatives met privately with town officials to discuss the proposed access. On June 30, CELT and the council met in a public workshop to discuss the potential reconfiguration of the path.

Neither meeting produced an agreement.

A memo provided by Sherman from the June 20 private meeting with CELT Executive Director Chris Franklin, President Ted Darling and Town Manager Michael McGovern said CELT remains unwavering about the decision to deny the access.

Sherman described the discussion as respectful and cordial, and said CELT does not want to be characterized as a “bad guy.”

“They value CELT’s partnership with the town and are obviously pleased that the council voted to contribute $350,000 to the acquisition of Robinson Woods II,” Sherman said. “That being said, they did not believe that CELT could be swayed by dollars to do something that the organization did not believe was compatible with the (Robinson Woods) conservation easement or its mission.”

In the follow-up workshop, Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said moving the pathway to the interior of Robinson Woods in a section between Bellfield Road and Chimney Rock Road would minimize changes to Shore Road, save 12 trees that would otherwise be removed and negate the need to remove the top of a granite ledge.

On average, the path along the quarter-mile stretch would weave into the woods about 15 feet, O’Meara said. At its greatest depth it would reach 30 feet.

Access to Robinson Woods could save up to $75,000 in construction costs, she said, and would maintain the character of Shore Road in that area.

But Darling said the activities anticipated on the pathway – walking and biking – are not compatible with the uses outlined in the Robinson Woods conservation easement.

He said the primary use of the path will be to move people from one place to another, while the purpose of Robinson Woods, according to the property conservation easement, is to provide a place of “quiet contemplation and reverence for the natural world.”

“We are accountable to a conservation easement,” Darling said. “It is not a political or individual issue, it was a unanimous decision in April of 2009. Our decision was based on the permissible use of that property, on the specifics and intent of the easement.”

Darling said the message the council is sending is that the $350,000 pledge for funding Robinson Woods II is contingent upon the town’s access to Robinson Woods for the Shore Road Pathway.

Sullivan said she needed more time to determine if the two decisions are related. But she admitted that the $350,000 pledge was an elephant in the room.

“We’re giving you money,” she said. “We’re asking you to give something.”

Sherman was adamant about addressing the two issues separately, as were Councilors Sara Lennon and Frank Governali.

But Swift-Kayatta said the conservation easement could be interpreted differently and said access to Robinson Woods would be an opportunity for partnership with CELT, “which hasn’t been present in the past.” 

Walsh said the plan could be modified to fit into the confines of CELT’s mission statement. He said he is not opposed to coupling the funding with the easement request.

“I don’t care if this request is in the 11th hour or one minute before the vote,” he said. “We are asking you because we feel this would be better for everybody.”

But Darling said it is CELT’s duty to protect the land it manages.

“We’d lose credibility as an organization if we change our course,” he said. “We are the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. We have to have the trust of the public that we will maintain and protect their land.”

Resident Mary Anne Lynch of Shore Road said she was opposed to altering the plan so late in the process. She told councilors she is concerned that any alteration would cause a delay in the project.

“If you delay this process there is potential for serious consequences,” Lynch said. “You may think you have valid reasons for this, but you could end up putting the work of many people … and the council at jeopardy. I ask you not to take this risk.”

McGovern said changes to the plan could delay the Shore Road Pathway project. He said the $700,000 in state and federal funding is at stake, and a project manager has been assigned to the plan. Construction bids are expected to be sought over the winter, and if changes are proposed, the plan must go back to the Planning Board.

“If that happens, we are potentially looking at no longer having construction start in 2012,” he said. “And over $700,000 in funding could be poached for other projects.”

On July 1, Sherman sent an email to residents who previously expressed support for the $350,000 CELT funding. The message encouraged them to contact councilors and urge that they not reconsider the decision on July 11.

“To be fair, these council members are doing everything possible to make the Shore Road Pathway as good of a project as possible. In my view, however, these members of the council are telling CELT – ‘capitulate on the pathway, or you don’t get the $350,000 for Robinson Woods II,'” Sherman said. “However, I am opposed to making this a ‘do it or else’ proposition. We as a council should not be linking the two issues.”

The council meets on Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.  Follow her on Twitter: @amy_k_anderson.

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