Cumberland voters to decide $3M public beach purchase
CUMBERLAND — After lengthy and sometimes heated discussion Monday, the Town Council voted unanimously to send a proposed $3 million purchase of beach property to voters in November.
But public opinion was much more divided, and often critical.
Some residents criticized the speed of the process and questioned its degree of transparency, as well as the feasibility of recreation access at the property. Others supported securing waterfront property for the public, and defended the actions of town officials.
The council took three votes: to have Town Manager Bill Shane sign an agreement for the purchase at 179 Foreside Road; to borrow not more than $3 million for the acquisition, and to hold a voter referendum Nov. 4.
The purchase of the property, including nearly 14 acres of shoreline property and nearly nine acres of forest, would satisfy a long-time goal of the town to provide public waterfront access. Funds for the purchase would be bonded over 20 years, at a cost of $240,000 a year.
But members of the abutting Wildwood neighborhood, whose private beach would neighbor the public land, argue the proposed use is prohibited by a conservation easement on the property.
An agreement to sell the more than 100-acre Payson property land to the Bateman Group development company was signed in June, Shane said in early July. If the sale be consummated, the town would buy its acreage from the developer.
The easement would remain in place, and allows for up to 10 homes to be constructed on part of the property, and for a sale to the town, Shane explained.
Part of the town's purchase would be a 2,400-foot right-of-way access road from Foreside Road to the beach, which would be improved. A 24,000-square-foot gravel parking lot, to accommodate 60 vehicles, could be built behind the beach and would need approval from the Planning Board. Plumbing could be brought to an existing bathhouse, and the beach currently has a 220-foot pier, with a ramp and float.
The easement allows passive recreation: outdoor, non-commercial recreational activities, such as fishing and hunting, that do not disrupt the natural environment and comply with federal, state and local rules, according to Shane.
Discussions will now begin with the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust on what uses are permissible on the property. The town will also start to develop capital, bonding and insurance costs for the property, and determine its annual upkeep.
A use committee for the facility, similar to those for Twin Brook and Rines Forest, will also be formed late this summer. A public information meeting on the purchase is to be held in late September.
The purchase agreement expires Dec. 15.
Penny Asherman, president of the land trust, said the organization has not yet received any formal request from the town or developers to review. The trust acquired the easement in 1997 from the Payson and Robbins family, and "we've enjoyed a good relationship with the owners for 17 years, and we appreciate their commitment to, and love of, the land as well," she said.
Karin Marchetti Ponte, general counsel for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, provided a legal analysis for the land trust on the proposed purchase, Asherman said, and determined that the sale of a portion of the property to the town is allowed under the easement terms.
"She advises that some of the proposed improvements and uses of the property may or may not require land trust approval, or be allowed under the easement," Asherman said. "We will not elaborate on specifics until a proposal has been put forward to the trust, but we do have procedures and standards in place to consider the proposals."
Public access to the property will significantly increase the need for vigilance there, she said, and the impact will have to be measured on wildlife, marine life and habitat, and ecology.
Asherman expressed concern about the potential impact of the proposed parking lot – where it will be located, its size, composition of its surface, and drainage.
"We strongly believe that the success of this new proposed phase of life of the Payson property firmly rests in establishing an effective structure for managing it," she said.
Wolfe Tone of Coveside Road, part of the Wildwood neighborhood, is state director of the Trust for Public Land.
"At the end of the day, there could very well be change down on that property," he said. "And we're going to need to look back through this (easement) document – the whereases, the purposes and the intent of the landowner – and say, 'how did we get here, and is this the right place to be?' And if we don't ask those questions, and adhere to the integrity of conservation, and the process of conservation, then who is that next generation that is going to, if we don't?"
George Marcus of Ocean Terrace, another Wildwood resident, expressed concern that putting the purchase agreement forward for signing Monday night was "putting the cart before the horse."
"The process that has been described ... is an extremely valuable and important process," Marcus, an attorney, said. "Unfortunately, we've set a price, we've set an expectation, before having completed that process."
Kenneth Fink of South Bristol, who has worked in the field of shoreline processes along the whole Maine coast, noted that much of the beach is in an intertidal zone, which limits its potential for recreational use.
He pointed out that a small "spit" section of the beach would be its only dry area for a large part of the tidal cycle, and has its own issues. American beach grass, which grows there, is a highly resilient plant in storms and crashing waves, but cannot withstand people walking on it, Fink said.
He also cited examples of beaches in Wells and Phippsburg, where people have to park some distance away or cannot park vehicles at all, and have to get to the beach by foot or bicycle.
Fink recommended a limited parking lot be placed near Foreside Road, with a size reflecting the limits of the resource, that a "leave no trace" policy be established to keep the beach clean, that barriers be installed to protect the beach grass, and that educational signs concerning the site be erected.
"This is an opportunity, but it needs to be approached with appropriate consideration for how best to provide public access," Fink said.
John Ferland of Birch Lane, a member of the Planning Board, called the process hasty and said it has been "conducted without sufficient public input, and as it stands today, it's an ill-considered idea without further information."
He urged the council to defer execution of the agreement and obtain more public input.
Ferland's street, Birch Lane, is nearest the proposed public access road into the beach. "We've ... made investments in our property because we have a conservation easement next to us that we thought protected our area," he said.
The public way into the beach would be 20 paces from his home, and provide a direct line of sight into various living areas, Ferland said.
"I'm displeased with the tactics that the town has used to propose this land purchase," he said, referring to Shane's July presentation, when the town manager said he contacted the Bateman group after learning the property was for sale in early May.
"Why was the outreach to the Bateman group? Why no other group?," Ferland asked, adding that whether it was right or wrong, "it leaves the impression ... that something is going on surreptitiously. And I'm so sorry to have to say that to you, because I have so much respect for you."
Pete Robbins of Orchard Road, a member of the Payson family, said his family "would like to state ... that we are deeply offended and disappointed by the process and the lack of transparency that has brought us all here together tonight. In the 10 years we owned the property, or controlled the property directly, we never heard a word from the town about their interest in acquiring shore access."
He added that the property was publicly marketed for 45 days, "and the town had every opportunity to ... call us and say 'how about we chat.' At the least, if we'd gotten that far, maybe we could have controlled or had a say in working through some of the design elements."
Councilors strongly defended the town's actions.
Councilor Shirley Storey-King said "I think this is one of the most transparent councils. ... We're all about transparency. ... We're trying to, like the manager and like you, make good decisions that will be good for everybody."
Councilor Peter Bingham added "We thought that seriously, this is probably the last large section of waterfront property that is available for access of the town."
The question is not just about ocean access, but the quality of that access, and whether it is worth $3 million, Councilor George Turner said.
"I think the misunderstanding about transparency is, that there are certain things that can't be done legally in terms of exposing the public to the process," he said. "And it has to be done at a certain time, from a legal standpoint. That's one of the constraints that (Shane) lives under. And unfortunately, he has to take grief for it in some instances, because people don't understand that."
Glenn Morazzini, who lives off Tuttle Road, remarked that if there has been any rush in the process, "it's because in the past, there's been an effort to get town access along the ocean, and every time it happens, the (council chambers) fills up, and (the proposal) goes down.
"That's not to say we should take the bid, that's not to say the process is right," he added. "But I think if there's been a rush to judgment here, it's been born out of that frustration, that this town has tried before, and it's just too bad we don't have ocean access for the people here."
Morrazzni urged that if the proposal ultimately is defeated, a committee be formed to find an ocean property for the town with a process and at a price residents can support.
Josh Ottow of Country Charm Road, a school administrator, said "I know that, as a public official ... sometimes decisions need to be made ... for the benefit of the greater good, that are not always popular with a select few. And so I applaud and support the Town Council and the town manager in their efforts to establish this public land on the Atlantic Ocean.
He added that it is frustrating to him and other residents that despite Cumberland's more than three miles of coastline, there is no public recreational access to the ocean.
"A park such as this, and the efforts of the Town Council, will enhance the quality of life for everyone in the town," Ottow said. "I respectfully encourage the council and others to be mindful of the harmful value of elitism under the guise of conservation and process, as this has characterized debates in other towns in Maine that have entered into discussions about how their citizens can enjoy the ocean. I sincerely hope that Cumberland can rise above that."
Councilor Mike Edes recused himself from the discussion and votes, saying that since his wife works for one of the sellers, he felt there would be a conflict.