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South Portland resident leads effort to reclaim Pope Preserve as city park

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South Portland resident leads effort to reclaim Pope Preserve as city park

SOUTH PORTLAND — What began as a desire to circumvent a parking lot when approaching the Greenbelt Walkway has become a robust effort to a build a park.

Dan Hogan, of E Street in Knightville, said he and his wife like to run on the Greenbelt, but never enjoyed having to start or finish in the parking lot of the Hannaford supermarket on Cottage Road.

About two years ago, with the city's approval, Hogan began carving a gently worn path through a patch of woods behind the parking lot that emptied into an overgrown lot of weeds and Japanese knotweed.

With Hogan's new trail, walkers and runners coming from Knightville could circumvent the impervious surface to connect with the extension that curves behind Hannaford, along what technically is Thomas Street, before connecting with the Greenbelt. 

It became a full-fledged project, even after the trail was created. Keeping the invasive knotweed at bay required extensive measures by Hogan, who went dumpster diving for carpet remnants, and carted truckloads of mulch onto the parcel to essentially suffocate the otherwise prolific plant.

After a while, Hogan said, "it kind of morphed from just clearing for a nice view, to thinking this should be a place to sit. This should be a park."

Hogan also uncovered the history of the parcel, and found it was part of a 28-acre preserve, the Pope Preserve, named after Robert G. Albion's wife, Jennie Barnes Pope, who died in 1975. The two lived on the property and owned much of the surrounding acreage until the mid 1980s. 

Albion, who moved to South Portland with his family in the early 1900s, became the first Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University during his lifetime. He died in 1983. 

It isn't clear whether Albion donated his land to the Nature Conservancy of Maine, or whether there was an exchange of money. Even though the city owns the land now (it was bought in 1985 for $1 from the conservancy, Hogan said), it remains "under the auspices" of the conservancy.

No improvements or changes are allowed on the parcel – which with the exception of the former house lot, is comprised mostly of mudflats – without approval from the conservancy and the city, Hogan said.

He received preliminary permission to pursue a park design from City Manager Jim Gailey and Dan Grenier, the Maine preserves manager for the local chapter of the conservancy. The South Portland Land Trust has also agreed to sponsor the project. 

Once the design plan is drafted, Hogan and his team will present it to all three entities for approval. 

"The hope is that (we) get a design approved this winter and then start the process of looking for funds," said Hogan, who hopes to have everything lined up by next spring. 

He's hoping that, with the help of the land trust, he will be coached in how to seek grants. Hogan also mentioned possibly asking for tax increment financing from the city, although he's not sure if the project would fall under the umbrella of possible TIF expenditures.

Planning and Development Director Tex Haueser said TIF funds typically cover capital expenditures rather than operating costs (maintaining a park would be an operating cost for the city).

Haeuser said the project "is pretty unique," but city TIF funds would likely not be mined for park construction or maintenance, because those funds are supposed to be used in a way that makes "a connection with economic development."

Figuring out the steps to fund the project, however, is in the distant future. For now, the collaborative process between neighbors has begun; a first meeting was scheduled Thursday at Hogan's home. The next will likely be held in August.

While Hogan is enthusiastic about the possibility of transforming the lot into a piece of preserved open space and possibly including a historical marker with information about the history of the parcel, he admitted the work ahead is daunting.

"I would turn it over right now if I knew someone else was interested, but no one else is doing that, so I have to," he said. "Without a plan for something sustainable, it could go back to being a weed-infested patch."

As Hogan gazed out of the ocean from the parcel on Tuesday evening, the Portland peninsula barely visible through the thickening fog, a crane left a rock it was perched on in Mill Cove and landed on the low-hanging branch of a nearby tree. Hogan watched it silently. It was easy to forget the hum of the city.

"It's really a sweet spot," Hogan said. "When you're sitting there, you get the feeling that you're surrounded by green space and ocean. It should be a place to sit and look at the ocean and meditate."

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA