South Portland council questions community garden plan

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents hoping to start a community garden on a piece of city-owned property must first address several concerns before the City Council will consider granting a lease.

Members of the Community Garden Collective on Monday presented the council a plan to build an organic community garden with raised beds on recreational space behind the former Hamlin School. 

The group would like to rent about 12,500 square feet of land, for $1 a year, for a 10-year period.

The soon-to-be nonprofit collective would in turn rent between 35 and 50 garden plots to residents for between $25 and $35 each.

While councilors seem to support the idea of having more community gardens, some were concerned about granting the group such a long lease.

The city’s Planning Department recently moved its operations into the former Hamlin School, which was previously used for off-campus high school programs.

But city officials have suggested the city might sell the school and property at some point to generate revenue for a new public works facility or other capital needs.

City Manager Jim Gailey said Wednesday the city may consider a five-year lease with an opt-out clause that would allow it to sell the property more quickly.

Other concerns raised during the workshop included parking, the water supply and aesthetics of the gardens.

Gailey said the group would have to tear up part of the school’s parking lot to run a water line to the garden.

Some councilors supported allowing the group to use the city’s water supply for free, but Gailey said budget would not allow that expense.

“We are already right up against the wall in the line items of our budget,” he said.

Councilor Tom Blake said on Wednesday that, while he supports community gardens on city property, he thinks the community would be better served by creating smaller gardens throughout the city.

“The city has approximately 238 properties spaced throughout the community,” Blake said. “Many of these properties are in (smaller) denser neighborhoods … and we know we will not sell. While I like Hamlin School as a site, I have concerns about putting all of our eggs in one basket, especially in the absence of a plan for that site.”

But collective member Crystal Goodrich said the group is focusing on Hamlin so it can create a successful model for future community gardens throughout the city. Spreading out the gardens would only increase the likelihood the project will not be as successful or well-managed, she said.

Goodrich said the group would like to expand community gardens to other parts of the city, and eventually take over the 35 garden plots at Hinckley Park, which are managed by the city’s Recreation Department and has a 16-person waiting list.

Two neighbors of the proposed Hamlin garden also raised concerns about how the gardens would look, Goodrich said, but the collective plans to include language in its lease that will allow the group to revoke a gardener’s plot if it is not maintained.

While some councilors objected to the group’s strict organic requirement, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said she supports the restriction.

The group would build raised beds and bring in organic soil for the gardens – an effort that could cost as much as $15,000.

“If you don’t require organic gardening then there is no organic gardening at all,” De Angelis said. “My long-range hope for the city is we move towards not letting anyone in the city use pesticides, even on their own property.”

De Angelis said she would like to schedule the group for another workshop as soon as possible, so councilors’ concerns can be addressed.

The group is hoping to open in the garden in the spring of 2012.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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