CUMBERLAND — Gov. Paul LePage, in an Oct. 28 letter to The Forecaster, claimed there is a lack of progress at the Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill preservation project, and defended a local legislator against criticism he’s received in connection with that effort.
It was the second time in two weeks LePage issued a statement about the matter. And, for the second time in two weeks, local elected officials and land trusts say they are baffled by his message.
Thanks to local funding, donations and a bridge loan, the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, Royal River Conservation Trust and the Trust for Public Land were able to purchase the land last year. A ceremony to celebrate the preserve’s opening was held a year ago.
Lands for Maine’s Future project agreements between the state and Cumberland and North Yarmouth were recorded the morning of Oct. 18 in the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, according to Penny Asherman of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust.
A news release from LePage, in which he said he was concerned that $225,000 in state funds toward the project had not been utilized, went out that afternoon. In that message, LePage also said the press had “gone after Representative Michael Timmons personally, blaming him for delaying the project.”
The 215 acres – primarily in Cumberland, with 50 acres in North Yarmouth –were purchased from Rebecca Leland Swigget, who inherited the property from her parents, Richard and Helen Knight.
The Cumberland Town Council in February 2015 approved a contribution of $300,000 from its Open Space Acquisition reserves. Two months later, North Yarmouth voters approved spending up to $100,000 from the town’s Future Lands fund for the $1.13 million acquisition and preservation of the mostly-forested land.
More than $460,000 in other funds came from foundations and private individuals. But an additional $225,000 grant from the LMF program, needed to complete the purchase, was in jeopardy last year as a result of LePage’s decision not to release voter-approved bonds earmarked for LMF conservation projects.
With those funds still in doubt, the two land trusts voted in September 2015 to advance the necessary funding so the property could be purchased. The trusts provided a bridge loan to complete the funding.
In December, LePage told the state Legislature that he would allow $5 million in LMF bonds to be issued.
Timmons, a Cumberland Republican seeking re-election Nov. 8, was criticized by town officials after not voting to override LePage’s veto of the release of the LMF bonds. He was one of six lawmakers to switch positions and uphold the veto.
In his Oct. 28 letter to The Forecaster, LePage said Timmons was “the only reason” for the Knight’s Pond project’s success.
“He is the only member of the Legislature who worked night and day to navigate this project through the complicated process,” LePage wrote. “Mike single-handedly convinced me and the administration the project was worthy, financially sound and fully supported by the community.”
LePage added that although the state issued a check Aug. 19, “Senator Cathy Breen (D-Falmouth), members of the land trusts and some elected town officials appear to have purposely slow rolled the process. They tried to postpone the closing of the project until after the election, using it as a political gambit against Rep. Timmons.”
LePage continued to criticize Breen, also running for re-election, saying she “and her allies used Rep. Timmons as a scapegoat, while the project was held up for months. Rep. Timmons has represented his district enormously well, and he has done so with honor.”
The Governor added that Breen “comes from the party that preaches civility, but her actions throughout this political farce were anything but.”
Dale Denno, a Cumberland Democrat running against Timmons in state House District 45, said in an interview Oct. 28 that he was “bewildered” by LePage’s latest message. “I don’t know whether the Governor is confused,” Denno said.
Asked if he thought LePage’s message was a means of boosting Timmons in the days before the election, Denno said, “I don’t like ascribing motivations to people’s behavior. I don’t know why (LePage) would say things that are not accurate.”
Denno praised Breen, the land trusts and towns for working hard to complete the project a year ago, adding that when LePage “refers to slow rolling the process, I haven’t any idea what he’s talking about.”
Breen, in an interview Oct. 28, said she thought that “because Timmons has been so loyal to the Governor, he’s trying to pay him back.”
Reacting to LePage’s reference to her slowing the process, Breen said, “I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’d be interested in any sort of records he had about that.”
The only thing she did after the property closed, she said, was write a letter to the LMF director about a month later, explaining a desire for the LMF funds to still come through in order to pay off the bridge loan.
In a statement Oct. 28, Asherman noted that the project was about protecting natural resources and providing recreational opportunities, and “not about partisan politics.”
“When the deal was on the line last October and the state LMF funds had been withheld for over two years, it was the land trusts and the local communities that had to step up and complete the acquisition,” Asherman said. “Skaters, hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, nature lovers, kids and adults love this property and they will continue to do so long after Nov. 8th.”
Alan Stearns of the Royal River Conservation Trust echoed those sentiments in a statement Oct. 29, noting that along with “repeated bipartisan votes” in North Yarmouth and Cumberland, “(h)undreds of local families made donations and brought their kids with ice skates to campaign events at the pond.
“The Governor’s voice has been the only outlier, bringing a street fight to a nature preserve we saved for all Mainers and their grandchildren,” Stearns added.
George Turner, chairman of the Cumberland Town Council, referred to “blatant inaccuracy” in LePage’s letter Oct. 29.
The council has “looked forward from day one to the speedy funding of a wonderful amenity,” Turner said. “The assertion that there has been any action designed to slow the process in the interim is patently false.
“It is astonishing to me that such misinformation should come out of the Governor’s office at this time,” Turner added. “The elected officials of Cumberland conduct town business with the highest integrity and observance of fiduciary duty. If there was any ‘slow rolling,’ it came from Augusta.”
“I didn’t intentionally, in any stretch of the imagination, do anything other than try to get the bond – and the Knight’s project – passed, period,” Timmons said in an interview Oct. 29.
As the legislative session came to an end in June 2015, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced a bill to remove LePage from the bonding process. The Legislature passed that bill, and LePage vetoed it June 30. The Senate voted the next month to override the veto, but the vote to override failed to reach a two-thirds majority in the House, 91-52.
Timmons noted in a candidates’ forum Oct. 25 that Katz’s bill would have taken authority in handling LMF finances away from LePage.
“If that had happened, this item would be in court, and no check would have been issued,” Timmons explained.
He said Oct. 29 that he was glad the funding did ultimately come through, “and if I have to take all the heat, it didn’t get defeated, and that was my ultimate goal.”
The Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill preserve in Cumberland and North Yarmouth opened to the public a year ago. Gov. Paul LePage has recently claimed local land trusts and officials were slow to complete the project.