PORTLAND — In early April, Back Cove neighborhood leaders who were upset about the pending sale of a tract of undeveloped land off of Ocean Avenue said that given the chance, they would raise the money to buy the land and preserve it.
Shortly thereafter, the deal between an unknown buyer and Central Maine Power Co. subsidiary Union Power & Water fell through.
Now, the utility company is giving the neighborhood the chance to prove they meant what they said about Canco Woods.
The Trust for Public Land, a national land preservation organization, announced Monday that it has signed an option with Union Power & Water to purchase the 12.75-acre property, which stretches from the ends of Wellwood and Torrey streets off Ocean Avenue to Canco Road.
“Really this is our chance now to get this and protect it. And it’s probably our only chance,” Danielle Vayenas, of the Friends of Canco Woods, said Monday evening while leading a tour of the woods.
Like many in the area, Torrey Street resident Vayenas had been upset that neighborhood residents, who used the private land for walking dogs, biking, ice skating and snowshoeing for decades, weren’t informed when the land was put on the market in April.
Vayenas formed the Friends of Canco Woods to organize the community. They, in turn, contacted The Trust for Public Land to try to find a way to protect the small forest.
Even before the first potential buyer had exited the picture, she said, the two groups had approached the broker representing the seller to express their interest in the property.
Two months later, the option to purchase the property was signed by The Trust for Public Land and Union Power.
It seems like a happy ending, but Vayenas and other neighbors said the work is only just beginning.
Residents have already invested time, effort, and some money in maintaining trails on the property. Parts of the woods are wet and swampy, and neighbors like Torrey Street resident Eddie Zelonish have built a series of temporary bridges over those sections. Zelonish said he would like to build more permanent bridges if he knew the patch of woods would be protected.
Now they could be, but first the neighborhood must raise $400,000 to pay for the land.
“That’s where we’re lucky to partner with TPL,” Vayenas said. “None of us are fundraisers.”
Joe Kubetz, a Murray Street resident who said he is a “big supporter” of protecting the land, was walking his dog through Canco Woods on Monday. He said said that he would do his part to see the property properly purchased and preserved.
The six-month option period is much shorter than the typical land conservation project, Gregg Caporossi, the TPL representative for the project, said. The groups will have to rely more heavily on private individuals and foundations because of that, he said.
Still, fundraising is off to a good start, Caporossi said.
“We actually have one donor who has stepped up to the challenge and has made a pledge for a $100,000 challenge grant,” Caporossi said, noting that that donation will come only after the neighborhood and TPL raises $100,000 on their own. “So we’re not starting from zero. We’re starting from a very good place and it demonstrates how much interest there is.”
The other details that must be finalized involve the final ownership of the land, Caporossi said. TPL would prefer that either the city or Portland Trails become the legal owner and steward of the land.
Conversations with both are in the early stages, he said. Past partnerships with Portland Trails to work on the Eastern Promenade and Bayside trails mean that there is already a strong relationship in place, and both Caporossi and Portland Trails trail manager Jaime Parker were optimistic Monday that an agreement can be reached.
The Canco Woods trails would form a spur to another in-progress trails project, the Milliken Brook Trail, Parker said. The Milliken Brook Trails connects Back Cove to the Forest City trails via Payson Park and Murray Street.
Neighborhood involvement would make the project easier to complete and maintain. “It’s great to have a built-in efficiency with neighbors using the trails and keeping their eye out on the trails,” Parker said.
“You can’t get it back” if the woods are developed, Zelonish said Monday evening while walking in the woods. He said he discovered the area during a mountain bike ride 15 years ago and now lets his children play there.
“Especially if the economy improves,” he said, “you’d probably have a tanning salon here in no time.”
Eddie Zelonish, left, his son, Zeke, and neighbor, Danielle Vayenas, all residents of Torrey Street in Portland, explore Canco Woods on Monday afternoon.