Falmouth conservation land deal falls apart

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council on Monday opted not to purchase a parcel of land it had agreed to buy three weeks earlier.

The proposed lot for sale on Woodville Road was actually smaller than the town believed. It also came with deeded restrictions that would limit access to an adjacent conservation area.

At their Aug. 22 meeting, councilors agreed to purchase for $30,000 land owned by Michael Bordick that abuts the Falmouth Country Club. The land would become a trail head for the East Branch Conservation Area, which is only accessible by canoe or kayak.

But a private buyer who plans to purchase 5 acres of land from Bordick to build a house wanted to acquire more acreage, and Town Manager Nathan Poore said instead of 3 acres, only 1 1/2 acres are available.

“It’s hard for me to understand what happened,” Poore said the Monday meeting, adding it was possible there were “too many negotiators.”

The town purchased 51 acres of land for conservation in 2011 from Bordick, who originally owned 61 acres. Those 51 acres were purchased for $160,000 with grants from the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program. Bordick was left with two, 5-acre lots, one of which was sold in 2015.

The new buyer wanted to purchase the remaining lot from Bordick to build a home, but Poore said a 50-foot right of way and steep slope wouldn’t allow for a traditional home to be built without major excavation work.

According to a memo attached to the council’s agenda, the 50-foot right of way was a “major error” by a contractor that was not caught; the right of way should have been closer to 16 feet. The result of that error, which cannot be corrected, was that only a very narrow home can be built on the lot, reducing the property value, Poore said.

The sale of the remaining 1 1/2 acres – still set at $30,000 – would have several restrictions: dogs, motorized vehicles and mountain bikes would be prohibited, and, since the parcel would be a trail head, effectively banning all those activities from the area. Only hunting and passive recreation would be allowed.

Poore said he originally understood the deal was for 1 1/2 acres, but with no restrictions. He said the town’s open space ombudsman, Bob Shafto, had come away from discussions with the understanding that the deal was for 3 acres without restrictions. Poore said when he called the buyer to congratulate him after the Aug. 22 meeting, he discovered there had been a misunderstanding.

“This is take it or leave it,” Poore said of the deal.

Councilor Caleb Hemphill said the new wrinkle didn’t change accessibility by hikers, and would allow for a small space for parking near the trail head. He said the restrictions were unfortunate, although it may be possible in the future to add access elsewhere.

“I think it’s worth it,” Hemphill said.

Council Chairwoman Karen Farber also said she had concerns about the restrictions, as she thought they were largely unenforceable. But she said this wouldn’t change her underlying vote from Aug. 22.

“It’s a great opportunity to provide real access to this wonderful little place,” she said.

“I’ve lost interest,” Councilor Andrea Ferrante said.

The council voted 3-2 on the proposal, with Councilor Aaron Svedlow and Ferrante opposed, and Councilors Ned Kitchel and Charlie McBrady absent. Since four votes were needed to pass, the measure failed.

In other business, the council scheduled a vote Sept. 26 on an amendment to allow contract zoning in town. At a Planning Board meeting last week, Councilor Caleb Hemphill had said the council would vote Monday, but he later corrected himself and said only a public hearing would be held. The Planning Board unanimously endorsed contract zoning on Sept. 6.

Contract zoning is a tool cities and towns use to rezone a district or parcel of land based on an agreement with a specific property owner or developer.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.