HARPSWELL — Advocates pitched plans for an approximately 70-acre preserve on Otter Brook to a nearly full house at the town offices Tuesday night.
Otter Brook is the second-largest freshwater stream in Harpswell, according to the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, and drains the northern part of Harpswell Neck into Ewing Narrows and Harpswell Cove.
Two properties bordering the brook, totaling 68 acres, have been offered for sale to the land trust in the past year. HHLT representatives and supporters made the case Tuesday night that the parcel is an ecologically important piece of Harpswell’s conservation puzzle.
Darcie Couture, the town’s Marine Resources coordinator, told the audience “(seawater) is extremely sensitive to what’s coming off the land.”
Potential development around Otter Brook, she argued, could affect the shellfish harvesting areas the stream empties into.
Harpswell Recreation Director Gina Perow echoed Couture’s point that the area has economic, as well as environmental, value. She said people coming to visit Harpswell are looking to get outside, and a new large preserve would offer more opportunities for hiking, bird watching, cross country skiing, and hunting.
Following Perow, land trust Trustee Ed Robinson spoke at length about the importance of Otter Brook as a wildlife corridor.
Pointing to a map of Harpswell Neck, Robinson said the largely undeveloped area around these two properties acts as important wildlife passage for animals moving from the mainland down the neck.
Although it’s uncommon to see large mammals in Harpswell, fisher cats and coyotes live in the area and hunt at night, Robinson said. A couple of years ago, a cow moose and her calf were seen “wandering around town” for a few days, he added.
The combined 20 acres of freshwater wetlands on the properties also provide important habitat for birds such as red-wing blackbird and osprey, Robinson said, and play an important part in filtering runoff and pollution.
“You cannot disconnect what goes on in freshwater … from what goes on out in the ocean,” he said.
The land trust has to raise $495,000 to acquire the two parcels, Executive Director Reed Coles said.
The land trust this winter asked the town for a $100,000 appropriation to help acquire the land, and selectmen approved a warrant article for $75,000 for the upcoming town meeting.
“We hope the voters … will approve that appropriation,” Coles said.
He said the land trust will try to raise $350,000 through private contributions, and secure the rest of the funding through grants.
Both property owners have connections to the land trust. The larger parcel borders the southern portion of Otter Brook and is owned by Sam Alexander, a former trustee.
The northern parcel, which is about 10 acres smaller, encompasses Otter Pond, which drains into Harpswell Cove. Town tax records list Keith Brown of Hildreth Road as the owner of Otter Brook Farm LLC. Brown is a land trust trustee.
Coles said as a nationally accredited land trust, HHLT has strict conflict-of-interest policies in place. For example, the seller is not allowed to participate in any votes regarding the property acquisition, or even be in the room when it is discussed.
Coles confirmed Tuesday night that the trustee was not in attendance.
The Otter Brook Farms and Alexander properties are valued at $225,000 and $215,000, respectively. The land trust commissioned independent appraisals for both parcels.
Coles said the trust only started fundraising in earnest in January, and has already raised about $77,000.
He said he is excited and confident that the project will come to fruition.
“This project is not visible – the public has never had access to this land before,” Coles said.
“There are just amazing things around Harpswell … and you just don’t know they’re there,” he added.
Otter Brook is the second-largest freshwater stream in Harpswell. The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust hopes to conserve it by purchasing 68 acres.