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Deadline nears for completion of deal to conserve part of island off Falmouth

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Deadline nears for completion of deal to conserve part of island off Falmouth

FALMOUTH — Proponents must raise nearly $200,000 over the next three weeks to purchase a 15-acre portion of Clapboard Island for public use and keep it from going back on the open market, a trust representative said Tuesday.

Despite the sizable sum, there's optimism among officials of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and members of Friends of Clapboard Island, who plan to place the land under a conservation easement.

"We're making good progress," said Betsy Ham, director of land protection for Maine Coast Heritage Trust. "It will be something we all share together."

The largely undeveloped parcel, which sits about a mile from Falmouth Landing and makes up slightly less than half of Clapboard, was put up for sale in 2011.

The owners, a trio of siblings operating under the name Clapboard Island East LLC, agreed a little more than a year ago to take the property off the market until Aug. 15, to give the trust time to raise $1.4 million to purchase the land, and another $200,000 to serve as a stewardship endowment.

The project already has 175 donors, Ham said. Land for Maine's Future, a division of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, this month allocated $75,000 for the project. The Falmouth Town Council in February pledged $200,000. The Pew Charitable Trust has chipped in $100,000.

A large portion of the overall budget – nearly 40 percent – is expected to come from the re-sale of a 3,100-square-foot house that sits on two acres of land.

"When I say we have a little less than $200,000 to go, I am assuming we'd be able to sell that cabin at appraised value," Ham said. "Since we don't own the island yet, we can't sell (the house) yet. So we're taking a little risk."

But probably not much of a risk.

One of the land's current owners has expressed interest in buying the cabin himself, said Roger Berle, of Falmouth, a conservation expert and advocate for the project. That owner, who would presumably purchase the house from his siblings, by way of the trust, would keep the cottage, while reducing the amount of land on which he pays property taxes from 17 acres to two.

The cottage sale may include a small mainland plot called The Grove, which offers private dock access and parking for 22 neighboring property owners.

But The Grove, which will likely be placed under a permanent conservation easement as part of the deal, could also be re-sold separately. Dawn and Al Hoffman, who own the southwest portion of Clapboard, have shown interest in purchasing the land, Berle said; the couple is now listing its portion of the island for nearly $6 million, and offering mainland dock access could sweeten the deal.

Regardless of the terms of sale, most of the project's advocates are just excited about the prospect of a public island, right off the coast, that offers day trips for small boats and kayaks, and stellar birdwatching, including an eagle's nest.

"A lot of folks don't have an opportunity to get out to a beach and enjoy an island, especially one that's only a mile from a public access site," Ham said.

If the sale goes through, the trust will complete a thorough assessment of the property, determine what needs to be protected and how, and devise a management plan. The trust would post signs and possibly add or alter trails.

Mostly, though, the land will be left alone.

"We want to allow a quality experience for the public, a place that's easy to get to, while being mindful of ecological values," Ham said, adding "I feel very optimistic that together we can get this done. We're so close. But we'll know when it closes."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.