UPDATE: Talks to extend Crescent Beach lease in Cape Elizabeth hinge on action by Legislature
Update: State lawmakers passed the supplemental budget Thursday and removed language seen as restrictive to the Crescent Beach State Park lease negotiations. The passed budget allows the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation to complete a lease agreement for the park with the Sprague Corp. without first receiving legislative approval.
CAPE ELIZABETH — Although lease talks over Crescent Beach State Park stalled last summer between the state and the corporation that owns a majority of the park's land, the two parties have developed a "framework" for a tentative deal.
The agreement hinges on the removal of language in the supplemental state budget package that would require legislative approval for Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation transactions, including the Crescent Beach lease.
Seth Sprague, president of Sprague Corp., which owns 100 acres of the 187-acre park, including the entrance area and most of the parking lot, said Wednesday he is confident an agreement will be reached if the budget passes without the restrictive language.
"As soon as the supplemental budget is passed, we're going to get right down to it and try finalize the lease extension before April 24," the deadline for the lease agreement, he said.
The supplemental budget, which lawmakers indicated is likely to pass, could be signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage as soon as Friday.
Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, co-chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, on Wednesday said it wasn't clear if that language will be removed, a process that would have to go to a floor amendment and be approved by both houses.
"If you and I were sitting down trying to negotiate a deal and I was going to give you $20 for a hat, but first I said I've got to ask a third party if that's OK, is that going to impact our negotiations?" he said. "Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't. Maybe I'll say I'll go for something higher than I really want to see if they'll approve it."
"I'm sure for both sides it complicates things because they have to have a third-party approval," Dill continued. "Then again, as in many cases, there is oversight by the Legislature for most departments, so that's nothing new."
Aside from the budget language, much of the agreement is still unclear, such as how much the state will pay and how that might impact the fee structure or how it might affect staffing at the park.
In 1960, the state signed an agreement for a 50-year lease from Sprague Corp. for $1, which expired in 2010. Since then, state has paid $10,000 for the one-year extensions.
Sprague remained tight-lipped about the price of the new deal, but said it would cost the state more than previous leases.
Jay Finegan, director of communications at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, also declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but said if the funding language is removed, the department is confident a deal will be made.
A 2011 town assessment of the total Crescent Beach estimated the property to be worth about $8 million.
After negotiations reached an impasse late last summer, the state began surveying the property in preparation for a new entrance, which would have cut through a delicate wildlife area, home to the endangered New England cottontail rabbit, and used a sandy maintenance road for access.
This plan worried environmentalists, area businesses and town officials, who stressed that the park's more than 110,000 visitors a year would be too much for the road to handle. Town officials also raised concerns about traffic safety with the new entrance, which would force cars to enter off Route 77 without an extra turning lane and possibly create long lines due to a shorter driveway.
Last year, the state indicated that it wanted to buy the land from Sprague Corp., but the company was not interested.
The popular park plays a key role in the state park system. Because of its popularity, it is one of the largest revenue-generating parks in the state and plays a crucial role in funding the $7 million state park general fund.
Pulling that revenue from the state park system could jepardize all parks in the state, state officials said previously.
In the same vein, the state employee's union launched an online petition that called on the governor to work to keep the park public.
Town Manager Mike McGovern said although he hopes a deal can be made, he is cautious of celebrating any agreement, since key details are still unknown.
"It's nice to see them talking, but with any agreement before you judge it, you have to know the details," McGovern said. "I want to know are there going to be changes in the way the park is managed or if there are going to be differences in fees. ... I'm just pleased to see the Legislature is working with the governor and the Sprague Corporation to find solutions."