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Portland pledges $75K to buy, conserve urban woods once threatened by development

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Portland pledges $75K to buy, conserve urban woods once threatened by development

PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday night agreed to buy and conserve a nearly 13-acre urban forest that neighbors said was in jeopardy of being redeveloped with industrial buildings.

While the council’s 9-0 vote to spend $75,000 to acquire the lot does not guarantee the property’s permanent protection, the council likely would have doomed the conservation effort by voting against the purchase.

The council approved the measure despite some concerns that permanently blocking development of the property could be shortsighted, considering the city’s needs for additional housing.

The $75,000 will be allocated from the city’s Land Bank account.

The property, a 12.9-acre area between Canco Road and Torrey Street, has been used recreationally for decades by hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, wildlife watchers and ice skaters. While the woods have been described as a secret forest oasis hidden from the hustle and bustle of city life on all sides of it, the battle over the property’s future elevated its profile considerably starting eight months ago.

The parcel has long been zoned for light industrial development. When property owner and Central Maine Power Co. subsidiary Union Water Power Co. put the lot on the market in March, neighbors feared a buyer might clear the woods to put up office buildings or a parking lot.

Nearby residents formed a group, Friends of Canco Woods, and rallied in opposition to any potential redevelopment of the site.

A pending sale of the acreage to a buyer whose identity was never disclosed fell through, and the Friends organization partnered with conservation group The Trust for Public Land in an effort to raise the money necessary to buy it themselves.

In order to acquire the site, The Trust for Public Land and Friends of Canco Woods were given until the end of this month to raise $400,000 – $350,000 for the property and another $50,000 to offset The Trust for Public Land’s costs and establish a stewardship fund, among other things.

According to city attorney Larry Walden, who updated the council in a memo distributed in advance of Monday’s meeting, The Trust for Public Land has raised $200,000 toward the cause, while Friends members have raised an additional $90,000. More than 50 households donated to the cause.

“People have dug deep to protect these woods,” said Tobin Scipione, a member of the Friends group. “They’ve stretched their giving, and many of them have said these are the largest donations they’ve ever given.”

The Trust for Public Land must exercise its purchase option by Nov. 30 and close on the property no later than Dec. 14, according to Walden.

Portland resident and longtime vocal taxpayer advocate Steven Scharf was one of a few members of the public to express misgivings about the expenditure.

“You’re being asked to spend $75,000 to take a piece of property off the tax rolls that generates $12,800 per year in property taxes,” he told the council. “Furthermore, if a developer put up a 10,000-square-foot building, what additional tax benefit could this have for the city of Portland?”

But Micah Roberge, one of many other residents who spoke out in favor of the deal, said neighboring property values would likely increase because of their proximity to the protected forest.

With Monday night’s vote, the council effectively agreed to purchase the property from The Trust for Public Land for $75,000, assuming the trust meets its own fundraising goals and closes on the property by the Dec. 14 deadline.

“If you turn down our request, I would say we have no way to make up that $75,000 in such a short period of time,” Wolfe Tone, state director for The Trust for Public Land, told the council Monday night. “I suspect our deadline would expire and take our chance to protect this property with it.”

Councilor Ed Suslovic said that while he supports land conservation, city officials are also considering building on parking lots to add housing.

“There’s clearly great demand and great pressure to develop more housing,” he told his fellow councilors. “Perhaps two or three of those acres could be developed (for housing).”

But Wolfe said, based on the looming deadline and terms already in place, delaying a vote on the matter to consider adding housing to the plan “could unravel everything.” He said including development into the larger conservation plans could detonate the organization’s fundraising efforts to date by disqualifying its grant applications and donation agreements which demand full preservation.

The council also committed, by a unanimous vote, to placing a conservation easement on the property, allowing the organization Portland Trails to establish and maintain paths through the woods.

Finally, the council rounded out its Canco Woods-related business by voting unanimously to request that the Planning Board consider whether the parcel should be rezoned from light industrial to recreational open space zoning.