The town of Damariscotta is working with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to find a solution after the town inadvertently violated grant agreements from the 1980s by leasing and transferring property to what is now the Central Lincoln County YMCA.
Town Manager Matt Lutkus discussed the situation during the Damariscotta Board of Selectmen’s meeting Wednesday, Dec. 21.
In 1981, 1983, and 1986, the town accepted a total of almost $40,000 in federal grant funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for construction and improvements to the community playground, ballfield, and lighting near what was then the Central Lincoln County Recreation Center. The project site was an estimated 6 acres, which included the site of the recreation center.
The property is now home to the recreation center’s successor, the Central Lincoln County YMCA.
The Damariscotta Area Recreation Association deeded the property to the town in 1977. During a town meeting in 1989, Damariscotta voters agreed to lease the land to the YMCA. In 2006, voters approved a transfer of the property to the YMCA.
As part of the grant agreement, however, the town was required to retain ownership of the land in perpetuity. Both the lease agreement and the transfer of property were in conflict with the town’s acceptance of the grants, Lutkus said.
The conflict was discovered in November, when Doug Beck, an outdoor recreation supervisor with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, contacted Lutkus to discuss a five-year inspection report on the property. Lutkus had not been asked to file the report previously.
“I was aware that there was grant money for the site, because that’s one of the reasons the recreation center gave the land to the town, but I didn’t realize there was any restriction on what the town did on that land because of the grants,” Lutkus said.
Through changes in elected and appointed town officials, it is possible the knowledge about the restrictions was lost, Lutkus said. Town attorney Jenny Villeneuve reviewed the title for the property and found no restrictions on the deed.
In order to comply with the grant agreements from 1981, 1983, and 1986, the town must now provide a substitute for the land it transferred to the YMCA, a process known as conversion.
The land must be used for an outdoor park or recreation project. Although the Y’s property is used for recreation, the land cannot be owned by a private organization or nonprofit in order to qualify for conversion.
In order to qualify for the conversion process, the land must have the same or greater “Yellow Book” value, or value without consideration for zoning.
The assessed valuation of the land that was under the grant agreement, excluding structures, is approximately $200,000. The town does not need to spend $200,000, but the value of the new project needs to equal or exceed that amount.
Improvement projects in Damariscotta’s downtown could qualify for the conversion process, including the construction of public restrooms in the municipal parking lot, Lutkus said. The restroom construction would include the addition of green space and a pedestrian walkway at Taco Alley.
During a special town meeting Nov. 16, Damariscotta voters approved two bonds totaling more than $500,000 for public works projects and equipment. Of the amount approved, $60,000 is slated for the construction of public restrooms in the small parking area adjacent to Taco Alley in the municipal parking lot.
After walking the site with Lutkus, Beck indicated the project might be acceptable for the conversion process, Lutkus said. The proposed conversion project would need to be accepted by the National Park Service, which administers the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the federal level.
The total estimated cost of two restrooms with two stalls each is about $150,000, Lutkus said. In addition to the funds from the bond, the town has set aside $11,000 in capital reserves for the construction of the restrooms. Additional funds from grants and donations would be needed to complete the project.
Until the town has a plan in place for the conversion process and is working toward the goal, it cannot apply for federal and state grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recreational Trails Program, Lutkus said.
“I would like to have the town eligible for those funds in the future, because it’s one of the few grant programs where there is actually money available, and there are potential projects we could use those funds to accomplish,” Lutkus said.
One of those projects could be an expansion of Biscay Beach and the construction of a boat launch, Lutkus said.
There will be no federal suit or other action against the town, Lutkus said.
Lutkus said he plans to review all the grant agreements the town has on file to make sure there are no other restrictions. If a restriction is identified, it will be added to the deed for the property.