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Scarborough may spend $2M to expand land trust

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Scarborough may spend $2M to expand land trust

SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council passed first readings in their meeting Wednesday on a $2 million expenditure for the potential sale of the Benjamin Farm property to the Scarborough Land Trust, and on zoning changes to facilitate better cell-phone service across town.

Securing the sale of Benjamin Farm, a 136-acre undeveloped property on Pleasant Hill Road, to the town for preservation has been the SLT's greatest priority for nearly 15 years.

"It is the property," Sue Foley-Ferguson of the Parks and Conservation Land Board and Jeremy Wintersteen of SLT each said in their presentations to the council.

SLT announced in January that it had reached a $2.5 million sale agreement with the Benjamin family, and since then has been strategizing fundraising efforts. The PCLB and SLT have recommended the council take $2 million from the land acquisition reserve fund to put toward purchasing the property. 

SLT plans to privately raise the remaining $500,000. The trust has until the end of the year to complete the sale.

The land acquisition reserve fund currently has $2.4 million. 

Wintersteen said SLT is excited to have almost secured the sale of the largest undeveloped  property in a densely populated part of town. 

Though SLT's first goal is to complete the sale of the farm, Wintersteen said they hope to make public access trails, and possibly even bring public gardens or farming to the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

In the sale process, SLT has collected much of the property's more than 150 years of rich agricultural history through the three families that farmed there, rendering the property all the more valuable to the town.

Councilor Jessica Holbrook voted to authorize the funds, but was hesitant to essentially exhaust the land acquisition reserve fund. The town has voted to approve land bonds three times: in 2000, 2003 and 2009. She raised the concern that voters might not support another bond to replenish the reserve.

"Those were different economic times," she said. "The likelihood of that passing now is slim and none."

Foley-Ferguson argued that acquiring Benjamin Farm is worth the risk. 

"We wanted this to be the first property for the land bond," Foley-Ferguson said. "It's taken this long to be here, and this opportunity won’t come back again."

Council Chairman Richard Sullivan also backed expending the funds.

"If this isn’t a high quality piece of property for the town to purchase, I don't know what is," he said. 

Pending approval of the farm sale and finalization of sale of the Fuller Farm property, the Scarborough Land Trust will have preserved more than 1,000 acres of town land.

The council will take final action on authorizing the funds in its next meeting. 

Cell tower zoning

Councilors also passed a first reading of zoning changes that would better facilitate more cell-phone towers and other facilities in parts of town with poor service.

After several months of deliberation with the ordinance committee, and an analysis of coverage gaps in town, Town Planner Dan Bacon presented updated zoning to the council to improve service.

Highlights of the amendments include permitting new wireless towers in more zones, especially rural areas that tend to have poorer coverage. Those zones include most areas west of the Maine Turnpike, and undeveloped spots near wetlands or the ocean in Pleasant Hill, Black Point and Pine Point neighborhoods.

Changes would also permit taller towers, up to 150 feet rather than 100 feet, and allow for smaller "stealth" or disguised wireless facilities mounted on buildings.

Sullivan was confident Bacon's recommendations would make the town more flexible for providers, while causing the least inconvenience for residents.

"We were very specific as to whether we want these towers put on town property, and if on private property, they’re concealed," he said.

Councilors agreed everyone could benefit from better reception around town, especially as a safety measure for seniors. 

The zoning changes go to the Planning Board for a recommendation on June 23 before the council's second reading in July.

Once the changes are made later this summer, Bacon predicted the service providers would begin applying "fairly quickly in certain areas."

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.