Divided Cape Elizabeth council ensures land trust funding, proposes Shore Road Pathway compromise

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council is offering the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust a modified proposal for placing a portion of the planned Shore Road Pathway on property managed by the trust.

At a meeting on Monday, July 11, the council also rejected an attempt to reconsider a pledge of $350,000 to CELT for an acquisition of land next to Robinson Woods.

The compromise path plan was created after councilors met with CELT representatives on June 30. It would reduce the length of the path through the property, but still save about eight mature trees that otherwise would have to be cut down.

Councilor Jim Walsh said the proposal indicates a desire to find a middle ground with CELT.

“In 2009 this was a 1,400-linear-foot section of road that we were going to put a five-foot path,” he said. “Seven thousand square feet of the 82 acres was going to be consumed in that request. We believe, rightly so, what we came up with on (June 30) is a far cry from that, but one that strikes the partnership we keep hearing about. And again, I keep hearing about it, but I have yet to see anything that demonstrates true partnership.”

The strained relationship between the town and CELT was evident at the July 11 meeting, when a vote to reconsider the $350,000 contribution was defeated 3-3. Councilors Anne Swift-Kayatta, Jessica Sullivan and Walsh supported the motion, while Chairman David Sherman and Councilors Frank Governali and Caitlin Jordan were opposed. Councilor Sara Lennon was not present.

The council voted unanimously on June 13 to help fund a $1.1 million land acquisition known as Robinson Woods II – a nearly 65-acre parcel next to Robinson Woods, which is owned by CELT and subject to a conservation easement held by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

As an addendum to the June 13 vote, the council asked CELT to consider allowing a portion of the planned Shore Road Pathway within the Robinson Woods property. The quarter-mile portion of gravel path would weave into the property an average of about 15 feet, and could save the town up to $96,000.

The land trust board was asked for access to Robinson Woods in 2008, unanimously rejected that request in 2009 and maintained its original decision last month when asked again.

On June 20, CELT representatives met privately with town officials to discuss the proposed access and on June 30 CELT and the council met in a public workshop to discuss the potential reconfiguration of the path. At both meetings CELT said relocating the pathway would not comply with the uses outlined in the conservation easement, which would risk the group’s credibility with landowners.

But some members of the council did not accept CELT’s response. Swift-Kayatta on Monday asked to reconsider the council’s June 13 unanimous vote and had no problem linking access to Robinson Woods with the $350,000 allocation.

She said she was perfectly comfortable telling CELT if they want money to purchase more land, they need to demonstrate that they can “exercise their discretion in a way that balances the town’s legitimate needs.” She said CELT did not call a board meeting to discuss the request, did not invite the council to speak to the board and “continued to rely on a flawed claim that the easement tied their hands.”

“On such a record, in my opinion it is responsible stewardship for the council to now formally link our requests and needs to their requests and needs,” she said. “The land trust is asking for $350,000, we should ask, in return, for the land trust to help with saving the town $100,000. Linkage is just another name for a two-way street.”

Swift-Kayatta also argued that the easement would allow CELT to agree to the request “if they want to do so.”

“The easement actually comes right out and states that it allows the construction of unpaved trails for waking and bike riding, that it even allows the construction of boardwalks, and that its aim is one of balance,” she said.

But CELT claims access to Robinson Woods is not possible due to specific restrictions within the conservation easement. CELT considers the pathway a thoroughfare, and Robinson Woods a place for “quiet contemplation.” The property can only used during the day, while the path has 24-hour access. Use of motorized snowplows to clear the path would also violate easement restrictions, according to CELT.

CELT President Ted Darling said what started as a friendly discussion between the land trust and the town has turned into a “not so subtle demand by some councilors that the land trust allow the Shore Road Path on Robinson Woods I as a prerequisite for funding Robinson Woods II – an entirely separate project.”

“Given these circumstances, there is absolutely no way that the land trust could reverse its decision on the Shore Road Pathway or we’d destroy our credibility as an independent, land conservation organization,” he said.

CELT Executive Director Chris Franklin said given the organization’s mission and relationship with the town, there is no reason for CELT to be uncooperative or to compromise its mission. 

“There’s really no incentive for us to stand in the way of the Shore Road Path for any reason other than the mission of our organization, which is to protect the properties that are entrusted in our care,” he said.

While Walsh, Swift-Kayatta and Sullivan wanted to reconsider the vote to provide $350,000 to CELT and link the funds to access into Robinson Woods, the other three councilors were not in favor of the reconsideration or the connection between funding Robinson Woods II and access to Robinson Woods I.

Jordan said her family has an easement with the land trust and respects CELT’s willingness to uphold the wishes of the land’s conservation easement.

“I hope that if in 50 years somebody was to find some wiggle room in the easements on Jordan Farm or on my own parent’s farm that CELT would stand up to them and say ‘that’s not the intention that was put before us when we signed this easement, and we’re going to hold firm to that,'” she said. “I commend them for holding firm to this.”

Sherman said he respects the councilor’s goal to find a win-win compromise for the town, but said he is not surprised that citizens are upset with and have accused the council of going back on its word “because that is exactly what’s happened.”

“We want to continue the respectful dialog, but it’s hard to have that respectful dialog when the council is changing its mind and going back on its word,” Sherman said. “At no point in time did CELT say ‘we’re done.’ … They will continue the dialog and continue to address the compromise plan. What they don’t want to do is have a gun held to their head.”

He said the council made the right decision last month.

“I look forward to continuing the dialog with the land trust and ask them and their board to consider the modified plan in front of them,” Sherman said.

Franklin said Wednesday that the CELT board has invited the Town Council to join the next land trust board meeting on July 25. He said the council will formally present its compromise proposal at that time.

CELT has been asked to respond by Sept. 7.

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