Falmouth considers purchase of land at Tidewater Farm

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FALMOUTH — In what it’s calling a “bargain sale,” the Falmouth Land Trust wants the town to purchase all of the remaining undeveloped lots at Tidewater Farm.

The mixed-use development between Lunt Road and Clearwater Drive has been subject to a master plan since 2005, but key parts of the project have never been completed and Michael Vance, president of the land trust, believes buying the open space would not only resolve several outstanding issues, but also be “an overall net positive.”

“The (remaining lots) are important for a number of reasons, including their potential to provide public benefits to our community if actively managed for education and public enjoyment,” the land trust said in a July 9 presentation to the Town Council.

Both the land trust and the council were emphasized last week that the numbers being discussed are just placeholders, but right now it’s anticipated that the total cost of the transaction to the town would be $550,000, of which $350,000 would be reimbursed at some point by the trust.

The idea, Vance said last week, is that the town would provide the initial outlay of funds and then be reimbursed by the land trust following a capital campaign, which would likely be at least a three-year effort.

Town Manager Nathan Poore said most of the purchase price would come from the town’s undesignated fund balance, with another $200,000 from the wastewater reserve account.

Among the undeveloped lots is a nearly 2-acre parcel that contains a historic farmhouse and barn, both of which are in poor shape and have been a cause of contention between the council and developers for years.

The ultimate goal, according to Vance, is for the land trust to use that site to build a new headquarters that could be used for educational purposes and other programming.

The land trust is also asking the town to pay for razing the two buildings and remove what Vance called “particularly pernicious” invasive plants.

Also included in the purchase would be a 48-acre conservation area now owned by Tidewater Conservation Foundation, which is made up of homeowners in the development.

In addition, there are two other lots on the table. One is a 2-acre field and garden area now operated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension; the other is an 8-acre lot adjacent to the town’s wastewater treatment plant on Clearwater Drive.

The town would keep the 48-acre conservation area and the 8 acres abutting the wastewater facility, while the land trust would be given time to raise the amount needed to buy the remaining 4 acres.

Vance said last week that the risk to the town would be minimal and if the land trust were unable to raise the necessary funds, the town could always sell the undeveloped lots on the open market to recover its investment.

He called the available land “key to the quality of life and character” of Falmouth and, in particular, said the farmhouse and barn lot, which abuts a tidal estuary, is “a singular site.”

None of the lots the being offered to the town have been appraised. Last week, councilors approved at least taking that step, but a majority also seemed in favor of the overall proposal by the land trust.

This week, Poore said the appraisal would be a “months-long, not weeks-long process” and did not anticipate coming back to the council with a final proposal this summer.

It was in late summer 2017 when developer Nathan Bateman first approached the town about making an amendment to the Tidewater master plan that would allow him to tear down the historic farmhouse and barn.

At that time he said “market forces and shifting priorities” led to the idea of turning over the undeveloped lots in Tidewater to a local conservation group, such as the Falmouth Land Trust.

At last week’s Town Council meeting, Vance said the land trust is “reasonably comfortable” that it could “execute the fundraising plan,” and Poore said town staff feel the deal represents “a good step forward.”

The land trust anticipates building a 5,000-to-10,000-square-foot headquarters at a potential cost of about $1.5 million.

Town Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said last week that the land purchase “is a good proposal and a solution to some of the frustrations we’ve had with the (final) disposition of the Tidewater plan.”

He also said the proposal would “respect the historical character of the property and I hope the town will lend its support to this financial arrangement.”

“After many years of uncertainty about a plan for this area, the existing buildings and road are in a state of disrepair, with regular occurrences of vandalism creating a public safety hazard, (which is why) … the Falmouth Land Trust seeks to work with the town to acquire these properties,” the trust said in a memo sent to Poore earlier this month.

“Tidewater Farm has attributes that make this a particularly attractive place for a center for community engagement around topics including, but not limited to, ecology, horticulture, natural resources and conservation,” the memo said.

“The property has coastal estuary features, contains diverse plant and animal populations, has an agriculture demonstration area and garden that has been established by University of Maine Coop Extension and is very beautiful.

“The Falmouth Land Trust believes it is an ideal site to construct a multipurpose, multifunctional, experiential learning center that would serve our community. We envision a structure to accommodate classrooms, offices and programming for FLT, students and other civic stakeholders.”

The informal uses of the property now include walking trails, birding, elver harvesting, kayaking, beekeeping, an orchard and fishing. “This demonstrates how rich and productive the property could be for a diversity of public benefits,” the memo added.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

This historic farmhouse and barn would be razed to make room for a new headquarters for the Falmouth Land Trust under a deal now on the table with the town. 

This tidal estuary is a key natural feature in the Tidewater Farm development.

A demonstration garden operated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension would remain under a plan to permanently conserve this two-acre plot at Tidewater Farm in Falmouth.

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