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CUMBERLAND — A public hearing on the town’s proposed $3 million purchase of beach property off Foreside Road packed Town Council chambers Monday and drew many comments for and against the deal, which goes to referendum Nov. 4.
Supporters have pointed out how the purchase, which would comprise nearly 25 acres of land at 179 Foreside Road – including 2,200 feet of shore front and a 200-foot pier – would accomplish a long-time town goal to provide public waterfront access. Funds for the acquisition would be bonded over 20 years, at a cost of $240,000 a year.
Opponents – including residents of the adjoining Wildwood neighborhood, whose private beach would abut the public land – argue that the beach is worth far less than the purchase price, that other areas of shoreline access can be found with more potential, and that the speed and degree of transparency of the process, as well as the feasibility of recreation access at the property, are wanting.
The Bateman Group signed an agreement in June to buy the more than 100-acre Payson property land. Should the sale be consummated, the town would buy its acreage from the developer.
A conservation easement on the property would remain in place. It allow up to 10 homes to be built on part of the property, and for a sale to the town, Town Manager Bill Shane has said.
In the first of several presentations given at Monday’s meeting, Shane noted that Cumberland’s public shore access is limited to the end of Town Landing Road and a point just north of Ledge and Schooner Ridge roads that has been used as a drainage ditch.
Each of those two points comprises 50 feet of shoreline, compared with Cumberland’s total 3.72 miles of coast, Shane said.
Part of the town’s proposed purchase would be a 2,400-foot right-of-way access road from Foreside Road to the beach, which would be improved. While the town once suggested a 24,000-square-foot gravel parking lot, to accommodate about 40 vehicles, could be built behind the beach with approval from the Planning Board, that proposal has been changed to appeal to land conservationists.
The town now proposes, as one development option, to keep most parking in a 12,000-square-foot, 25-spot, gravel lot a half mile from the beach, closer to Foreside Road. Eight spaces in a 400-square-foot lot closer to the beach would be designated, with parking on grass only, while four handicapped spots would be available at the access road’s turnaround loop. That loop could serve as a drop-off area for those parking near Foreside Road.
A 54-tree, double-row buffer has been proposed to stand between the public area and Wildwood. A future bathroom facility could include a composting toilet.
The Town Council has appointed an Ocean Access Committee, soon to meet for the first time with the town attorney to better understand the conservation easement and protection of the natural qualities of the property, and ultimately to develop a facility use plan.
That plan would include public input, and require approval by the Town Council and Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, similar to the Rines Forest plan.
Along with the cost of the bond, expenses in the first year could be about $99,000, including a park ranger – unless volunteer help is found – to monitor the property 26 weeks a year; start-up costs; capital reserves for the pier; maintenance and utilities. From the second year on those annual costs, minus start-up expenses, would be about $33,000, Shane said.
Town Attorney Ken Cole said the easement allows “significant additional development on the site, which is why, unsurprisingly, the (entire) site is for sale for $6 million. If it were just grass and trees with one house and a guest house, it wouldn’t be for sale for that, necessarily.”
He said he has never rendered a written opinion regarding the town’s use of the property, but noted that his reading of the matter allows the town limited recreational use subject to the land trust’s approval.
In its response to Cumberland’s proposed use, Land Trust President Penny Asherman wrote Sept. 30 that “Despite the challenges inherent in managing increased public access while maintaining other conservation values on the Payson property, the CCLT board strongly believes that expanded access to the property, which is permitted under the easement, if managed properly, can occur while still protecting the natural and scenic features of this remarkable property.”
The land trust, which has been the property’s steward for 17 years, called for a stakeholder committee to form a management plan and guidelines for the parcel. The group praised the creation of the Ocean Access Committee.
More visitors to the property, through public access, will inevitably have an impact, Asherman said, adding that CCLT will need to “manage, monitor and attempt to minimize the impacts of more visitors in ways that respect the natural and scenic resources.”
CCLT asked the town to look into ways to manage access, such as limiting the number of parking spaces, having hours of operation and creating a resident sticker system.
Among several other recommendations, the trust asked that dogs be prohibited from the beach year-round to protect water quality, birds and beach grasses, and that smoking and fireworks be banned, too.
CCLT also calls for most parking to be closer to Foreside Road, but that the lot not be visible from the road, “with a smaller parking area to be located closer to the shore for handicapped access and access for shore-focused recreational activities, such as kayaking, canoeing and clamming,” Asherman said.
Parking should be designed to minimize disturbance of wetlands and erosion, and the CCLT board strongly prefers “a conservative, phased-in approach to create parking that would allow for reflection on usage and impact, (and) future expansion to meet needs,” Asherman said.
CCLT also asks that a proposed bathroom, converted from the existing bathhouse on the site, be placed further upland, away from the immediate shore area and on flatter land, and that a composting toilet be used.
Wildwood resident George Marcus acknowledged that $3 million probably would not “break the budget,” but noted that as a taxpayer, the question for him is “if we spend $3 million on this project, what other projects in the town will we not be able to do?”
He added that it is too early to say whether the cost is too high or low, since the exact project has not yet been determined.
“The (Ocean Access) committee has not yet met, the uses have not yet been defined, we have no expressed consent from the trust; we have … a lot of principles to follow,” Marcus said. “… We don’t know what we’re getting exactly for $3 million.”
Tom Hyndman, who also lives in Wildwood, challenged the town’s appraisal of the property. DiBiase Appraisal Services, working on behalf of Bateman and the town, placed the value at $3.2 million, while Amidon Appraisal Services, used by Wildwood, arrived at a value of $405,000.
Hyndman noted that the town was required through its agreement with the developer to have the property appraised, but that the developer had the appraisal done, with the town added as a client.
“The appraiser was serving two masters – the seller and the buyer,” Hyndman said. “And based on this fact alone, it’s my opinion that the appraisal is flawed. Who would ever buy a piece of property where your price is based on the seller’s appraisal alone? … Why didn’t the town order its own independent appraisal?”
Shane said the town had a short opportunity to have an appraisal in hand by Monday’s public hearing, noting that the town and developer “were in agreement that to find somebody quickly, (that) we would work together,” and that the appraiser used is independent and staffed neither by the town nor the developer, who split the cost of the appraisal.
“There’s no hidden agenda here,” the town manager said.
Hyndman also questioned the $3.2 million appraised value. He noted that the figure was based on the developer’s right to build and sell seven new residential properties, along with two pre-existing properties.
“Using that approach, the property may be worth $3.2 million; I would not dispute that,” he said. “But the seller is not selling, and the buyer is not buying, those development rights. The town is buying a property that has no development rights, and is encumbered by a conservation easement. … The town’s permitted uses of this land are dramatically different, and consequently dramatically less valuable than the permitted uses of the developer.”
Wildwood’s beach is assessed at $71,300, Hyndman said, noting that the Payson beach is about 5.4 times larger, and that multiplying the two gets a rough value within $20,000 less than the $405,000 appraisal done for Wildwood.
Resident David Ezzio noted that it is unfortunate for a shore-front community to have no significant public beach access. He noted that Cumberland does not have “perfect beaches” like Old Orchard Beach or Phippsburg, but that “this is one beautiful beach, in my view.”
He agreed that it might have been best for the appraiser to work only for the town, “but I have to say that if the 2.5 acres of beach at Wildwood is fairly valued at $71,000, if they’re willing to sell, I’m willing to buy.”
Resident Ted Chadbourne argued that the beach, covered with many sharp shells, is not suitable for swimming, and that its shallow water prevents large boats from coming in too close.
He criticized the town for not getting its own appraisal, adding that he did not think the figure is “anywhere near fair value,” and that he thought the town should pass up this opportunity and explore other options.
Former Town Councilor Harland Storey said the purchase would make a good investment, adding that “when you’re getting 25 acres of land on the shore, that’s protecting the future of our (coming) generations, and giving our children, our grandchildren, a place to go, a place to enjoy.”
Polls will be open at Town Hall from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 4, and early absentee voting is available Monday-Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 30.