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Clapboard Island groups make case for Falmouth funds

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Clapboard Island groups make case for Falmouth funds

FALMOUTH — Proponents of a plan to purchase half of Clapboard Island presented their case Monday, and received a measured response from the Town Council.

About 20 sticker-wearing supporters filled council chambers to hear a presentation by representatives of Friends of Clapboard Island, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Falmouth Land Trust.

The northeastern half of Clapboard Island, about a mile off Falmouth Landing, has been on the market since 2011. Recently, the grassroots organization Friends of Clapboard Island and Maine Coast Heritage Trust negotiated a deal with the property owners to buy the 17-acre property for $1.4 million, $100,000 less than the appraised value.

The offer expires Aug. 15.

The groups hope to raise a total of $1.6 million, with $200,000 set aside for a stewardship endowment. The property would be placed under a conservation easement and opened for daytime use by the public.

Representatives from all groups said they need a donation of $300,000 from the town in order to meet their fundraising goals. The Town Council took no action on the request Monday, but Chairwoman Theresa Pierce said she would forward it to the finance committee for review.

Falmouth resident Susan Gilpin served as spokeswoman for the Friends of Clapboard Island, leading an hour-long presentation and question-and-answer session.

Gilpin described the proposal as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" and asked the town to donate between $300,000 and $500,000.

"The town's help is essential," Gilpin said, "to preserve this island, and to open it to thoughtful public access."

The council gave no indication of a consensus, but two potential issues emerged. Councilors wanted to know if a donation from the town is truly necessary to complete the purchase, and whether a vacant lot on the mainland that conveys with the property could be sold off for development.

Ron Joyce said the town's help is needed.

Joyce, a former development director at Maine Coast Heritage Trust who is working under contract to raise funds for the Clapboard Island project, said about $200,000 has been raised so far. The groups have identified more than 200 potential donors, but it's not quite enough, he said.

"Without the $300,000 (from the town), the number of prospects we have don't predict to get us to the full $1.6 million," Joyce said. "So we really do need and require the town of Falmouth to try to assist us."

Several councilors suggested that a parcel of land at Madokawanda Landing be sold to raise funds, but Gilpin said that move could jeopardize other donation sources.

The lot at Madokawanda Landing was purchased in 1898 by Sam Houston, whose family now owns the properties. Houston bought the lot to secure access rights to the neighborhood dock, Gilpin explained.

Several residents of the neighborhood who have agreed to donate money to the cause might be less inclined if the lot is sold for development instead of the current plan, which would put the lot under a permanent conservation easement.

"What you gain with one hand, you lose with the other," Gilpin said.

Although the fundraising goal is $1.6 million, the total outlay for the groups could be much less. The island property includes a three-season cottage, which sits on a 100,000-square-foot lot. The home and lot could be sold to a third party at the time of closing. The estimated price for the home and lot, which will go on the market next month, is $800,000.

That means the groups need to raise about $600,000 for the 17-acre parcel, plus another $200,000 for a stewardship endowment. So far, Friends of Clapboard Island has raised $200,000 in pledges and donations, plus a notable prospect: the Pew Charitable Trust will contribute $100,000 to the effort when donations reach $500,000.

The overall effort received a boost in mid-December, when Falmouth's Land Management and Acquisitions Committee voted unanimously to recommend town funding of $300,000 or more toward the purchase.

If the fundraising effort is successful, the land could be opened to the public by August.

The northeastern half of the island would only be accessible via small, beach-able craft, such as canoes, kayaks and dinghies. There would be no overnight camping or campfires, but picnicking and bird-watching would be encouraged. Trails would also be built to accommodate hiking.

From the 1700s to the 1800s, Clapboard Island was owned by the Bucknam family, which used it for sheep grazing, Gilpin said. Next, the island was owned by the Gallant family, which farmed it. In 1989, the island was bought by the Houston family of Philadelphia, Pa.; three Houston siblings own the property today.

"It's been posted 'no trespassing' since anyone can remember," Gilpin said.

Aaron Svedlow, a wildlife biologist and member of the Falmouth Conservation Commission, told the council he visited the island in the fall. He said the island is also home to coastal rarities, such as roseate terns and eelgrass, and is forested by balsam fir and "some of the largest striped maples I've seen south of the mountains."

"Frankly, it's a nice piece of property," he said.

Councilor Karen Farber said the grassroots nature of the effort is "incredible and very commendable," but said there are a lot of demands on the town's unassigned fund balance.

"The elephant in the room is there are a lot of competing interests for a limited amount of dollars," she said.

Gilpin countered that the project is unique.

"It's 'shovel-ready,' as the jargon goes, and it's time-limited, so we feel that the timing is right for this," she said.

Jed Harris, president of Falmouth Land Trust, spoke on behalf of the project. He said acquiring lands for conservation and public use is part of a proud tradition in Falmouth. He encouraged the council to chip in.

"'Conserve, explore and enjoy.' That's the motto of the Falmouth Land Trust," Harris said, "and I can't think of a property that better embodies that motto than the opportunities on Clapboard Island."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.