LePage lobs criticism at completed LMF project in Cumberland-North Yarmouth

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CUMBERLAND — Land trusts involved in securing funds to preserve Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill expressed bewilderment Wednesday after Gov. Paul LePage claimed there has been a lack of progress toward completing the project.

Thanks to local funding, donations, and finally a bridge loan, the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, Royal River Conservation Trust and the Trust for Public Land – which worked with Cumberland and North Yarmouth to acquire the land – were able to purchase the parcel last year. A ceremony celebrating the parcel’s opening to the public was held a year ago.

Lands for Maine’s Future project agreements between the state and two towns were recorded Tuesday morning in the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, Penny Asherman of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, said Wednesday.

LePage’s news release, expressing concern that $225,000 in state funds toward the project had not been utilized, went out Tuesday afternoon.

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. North Yarmouth voters in April 2015 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 Land for Maine’s Future 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.

The deadline to close the deal was postponed while both towns extended their agreements.

With the LMF dollars 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.

But a news release from LePage’s office Oct. 18 added a new wrinkle to the story.

Although nearly 12 projects under the LMF program had been “closed and funded,” the Knight’s Pond project “remains up in the air despite this year’s June bond sale that included funding for LMF,” the release said, adding that LePage had expressed “concerns over why $225,000 in state funding has yet to be utilized.”

“My critics and the Maine media have slammed me repeatedly for supposedly not releasing funding,” LePage said in the statement, adding that the press has “gone after Representative Michael Timmons personally, blaming him for delaying the project.

“Now the funds are available and those responsible for submitting paperwork are purposely slow rolling the process for political purposes,” the governor said. “I demand to know why town officials and the land trusts involved with this project are dragging their feet.”

Timmons, a Cumberland Republican who is seeking re-election in November, was criticized by town officials after reversing his position and 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.

“We are confused by the governor’s comments because all of the work on Knight’s Pond Preserve has been completed,” Penny Asherman of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, Wolfe Tone of the Trust for Public Land, and Alan Stearns of the Royal River Conservation Trust said in a joint statement.

“We have responded to each and every request by the state and the documents have been recorded in the Registry of Deeds,” the statement added. “This has been a long 2 1/2 year process and we are happy to finally be receiving the LMF funds on the one year anniversary of purchasing Knight’s Pond Preserve.”

In the year since the bridge loan secured the property’s purchase, “scores of people have been enjoying this beautiful property and we have been working with our partners to develop a management plan, improve trails and other amenities for all to enjoy,” the statement concluded.

Now that it has been released, the $225,000 will go toward paying off the bridge loan, Asherman said.

LMF project agreements between the state and two towns were recorded Oct. 18 in the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, Asherman noted. The Cumberland agreement was recorded at 10:40 a.m., and the North Yarmouth one immediately after.

LePage’s news release was emailed at 4:14 p.m. that day.

“Project agreements are required by the LMF Program and outline the terms and conditions for receiving the LMF funds,” she explained. “We have responded to requests form the state’s attorney, updated the title search and title commitments (at our expense) even though the towns purchased the property last year, and sent copies of the minutes from town meetings authorizing the purchase of the property.”

Asherman said the $225,000 check from LMF has not been received.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill preserve in Cumberland and North Yarmouth opened to the public a year ago. Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday claimed local land trusts had failed to complete the project.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.