Falmouth council compromises on Clapboard Island campaign, OKs $200K contribution

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FALMOUTH — A plan to purchase half of Clapboard Island for public use received a major boost Monday night, but not as much as proponents wanted.

After 90 minutes of discussion and debate, the Town Council voted 5-1 to donate $200,000 toward the effort – one-third less than the $300,000 that Friends of Clapboard Island had requested. Councilor David Goldberg was opposed; Councilor Russ Anderson was absent.

The northeastern half of Clapboard Island – which lies about a mile off Falmouth Landing – has been on the market since 2011. Recently, the grassroots organization Friends of Clapboard Island and Maine Coast Heritage Trust negotiated a deal with the property owners to buy the 17-acre property for $1.4 million.

If fundraising is successful, the property will be placed under a conservation easement, but opened to daytime use by the public.

Last month, representatives from all groups told the council they needed a donation of $300,000 from the town in order to meet their fundraising goals.

Keith Fletcher, project manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said the smaller amount creates some challenges, but investment from the town will still ultimately spur momentum for the fundraising campaign. Donors like to see local support, he said.

“It’s a huge step forward for the effort,” he said. “We understand there are other priorities and we are just really pleased to have $200,000.”

Councilors were unanimous in support of the groups’ plan to purchase the land, but divided on the amount the town should donate and whether it should come out of the town’s undesignated fund or be borrowed.

Goldberg said he fully supported the groups’ effort to purchase the land, but he was still faced with a tough decision. He said his first two priorities for the town’s undesignated funds are to fix or improve assets that the town already owns. Purchasing new land is a third priority, he said.

Councilor Sean Mahoney echoed Goldberg’s sentiments, saying the council faces other priorities, such as renovating Town Hall, expanding the library and improving railroad crossings.

“I’m really struggling at $300,000,” Mahoney said. “I’d like to think about a different number, quite frankly.”

Councilor Chris Orestis agreed and suggested the $200,000 donation. “That’s a palatable number for me,” he said.

Councilors Karen Faber, Claudia King and Theresa Pierce offered fuller support, but Pierce eventually amended the proposed amount down to $200,000 to be “pragmatic.”

“I wish there were more votes for the higher amount,” she said, “but I also don’t want to see us not participate.”

Prior to the council’s discussion, 12 people spoke in favor of a $300,000 donation during a public comment period.

Resident Chuck Sanders said he has visited about three dozen islands along Maine’s coast, but Clapboard Island provides a unique experience that “needs to be shared.”

“Being out there is sort of like being in a cathedral that doesn’t have a roof over it,” Sanders said.

Although the fundraising goal is $1.6 million, the total outlay for the groups could be much less. The island property includes a three-season cottage, which sits on a 100,000-square-foot lot. The home and a two-acre lot could be sold to a third party at the time of closing. The estimated price for the home and lot, which will go on the market next month, is $800,000.

That means the groups need to raise about $600,000 for the remainder of the 17-acre parcel, plus another $200,000 for a stewardship endowment.

So far, Friends of Clapboard Island has raised $200,000 in pledges and donations, plus a notable prospect: the Pew Charitable Trust will contribute $100,000 to the effort when donations reach $500,000.

That boost could be imminent. During the public comment period Monday, Roger Burley, president of the Madokawanda Landing Association, said his neighborhood is giving its full support to plan. The association was planning to meet Tuesday to discuss a potential six-figure donation, he said.

Residents of Madokawanda Landing have a stake in the project, because a developable lot in the Foreside neighborhood will convey with island’s cottage. Under the current plan by the Friends of Clapboard Island and Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the lot – known as “The Grove” – will be placed under a permanent conservation easement.

The lot was purchased in 1898 by Sam Houston, who bought the lot to secure access rights to the neighborhood dock as a launching point for his property on Clapboard. Today, the properties are still owned by Houston’s decedents.

If the fundraising effort is successful, the land could be opened to the public by August.

The northeastern half of the island would only be accessible via small, beach-able craft, such as canoes, kayaks and dinghies. There would be no overnight camping or campfires, but picnicking and bird-watching would be encouraged. Trails would also be built to accommodate hiking.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.