HARPSWELL — The dense, spruce-fir forests behind the town offices are home to dramatic cliffs where osprey nest, and vernal pools where salamanders breed.
But just how much of that land could be developed, or should be preserved?
In an effort to answer those questions, the Conservation Commission received a grant to fund a study of the 205 town-owned acres between Strawberry Creek and the cliffs along Long Reach.
Normandeau Associates, a Falmouth-based environmental consulting firm, recently concluded the study, and reported the preliminary findings to the Conservation Commission this month.
The four parcels in the study were purchased by the town over the course of 24 years, beginning in 1978 and ending in 2002. They include a 2.3-mile loop trail, steep cliffs, the highest point in Harpswell, as well as the community television station, recycling center and the town offices.
The report found that “a good portion” of the land on the east side of the property, near the Long Reach cliffs, would be challenging and expensive to develop due to shallow bedrock and steep slopes. It recommended preserving these areas for public recreation use because of their scenic value.
Two of the five town-owned parcels would be suitable for development: a two-acre section between Henry’s and Strawberry creeks and a 16,000-foot section along Harpswell Sound, across Mountain Road from the town offices. A road would have to be built from the town offices to access the first section, while the second could be suitable for a waterfront park or boat ramp.
During their field surveys, the consultants found several streams, wetlands and vernal pools on the property. They discovered wood frog and salamander egg masses in some of the pools, but none of them met the state definition of a significant vernal pool.
Regardless, they concluded that “these pools represent biological resources and serve as critical features to the food web of the entire area.”
Other wildlife sightings included three osprey perching along the cliffs by Long Reach, and a fox den with three kittens near the cell phone tower. Although they were not seen, the consultants assumed that deer, skunks, raccoons and other small mammals live on the property, too.
There were few rare or threatened habitats on the property. The vast majority was defined as spruce-fir forest, although the Cliff Trail viewpoint contains a rare three-toothed cinquefoil and low-bush blueberry community.
The trails that crisscross the town-owned land “provide a good opportunity for the public to enjoy this property,” according to the report. However portions of the Cliff Trail are suffering from erosion, including a section along the Long Reach cliffs.
Normandeau is still finalizing its report with new input from the Conservation Commission, which will present the findings at a special workshop with the Board of Selectmen in late July. A public hearing on the report will be held at the meeting.
Based on the report’s findings, a future Town Meeting will decide whether to place a conservation easement on some portion of the land.