PORTLAND — For years, the residents of the neighborhood around Torrey and Wellwood streets off of Ocean Avenue have hiked, biked, ice skated, and walked their dogs through the woods that stretch from their back yards to Canco Road.
Now, the land is under contract to a potential buyer, and without knowing who the buyer might be or what the plans are for the land, the neighborhood has come together to try to protect what one resident called “one of Portland’s last wild spaces.”
“This neighborhood has a long history with that land, both in terms of other proposed development over the last 25 years or so … but also, the neighborhood to some extent has been unofficial stewards” of the land, said Tobin Scipione, president of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association.
The woods are not expansive – with the trees still bare of leaves, houses and Canco Road businesses are visible from nearly every point along a network of informal but well-kept trails forged by neighbors.
But the area provides habitat for wildlife as large as the occasional deer and fox, neighbors say. A series of small wooden bridges takes walkers over wet areas and small gullies; other parts of the trails have been designated with mulch.
When a “For Sale” sign unexpectedly appeared, followed shortly by a notice that a sale is pending for the 12.75-acre plot owned by a Central Maine Power Co. subsidiary, it “threw the neighborhood into a spin,” said Danielle Vayenas, a Torrey Street resident who has organized Save Canco Woods, a grassroots neighborhood organization.
“We were inundated with emails from neighbors who were concerned with this issue,” Scipione added.
Many of the residents believed CMP would offer to sell the land to local organizations like Portland Trails or the city’s Land Bank before putting it on the open market.
“To be honest, to be fair, CMP has been a good neighbor, which is why we were all shocked when they didn’t inform us about trying to sell the property first,” Vayenas said.
That perception may not be accurate, according to those local organizations. “It’s a parcel of interest for us,” Portland Trails trail manager Jaime Parker said. But, he said, “we’ve never had any specific designs for it.”
Both Parker and City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who is a Land Bank commission member, said their respective organizations could not afford the property’s $350,000 list price. And both said their organizations had never approached CMP to express formal interest in the land, which CMP spokesman Jon Carroll confirmed.
Nevertheless, the neighborhood murmurings led Leeman to schedule a neighborhood meeting for Tuesday evening at the Ocean Avenue Elementary School to combat what she called “misinformation” about the sale of the land.
There will also be a Housing and Community Development Committee meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 209 of City Hall that will include discussion of a land-swap proposal that Leeman said will protect the neighborhood and parts of the Canco Woods from encroaching development on the Canco Road side.
Neighborhood leaders like Scipione and Vayenas said residents are willing to raise funds to buy the woods in cooperation with the city, if given the chance.
“There is interest for the neighborhood galvanizing and really actively trying to raise the money in order to preserve it,” Scipione said.
Beth Connors, who works at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection office on Canco Road, walks the trails in Canco Woods during a lunch break Monday. Neighbors have used the woods as a recreational area for years and are afraid the pending sale of the property will spell the end of their unofficial trail system. “I find it’s a great resource to have,” Connors said.
Neighbors posted signs in Canco Woods near Torrey Street to advertise a public meeting about the pending sale of the property.