A citizens petition for the town of Westport Island to pledge $50,000 toward the purchase of a 144-acre property on Squam Creek for conservation met with some opposition and a lot of support during a public hearing at the town hall Thursday, May 26.
About 30 voters attended the public hearing. Westport Island resident Dennis Dunbar, who is also the president of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, gave the voters a brief history of the land trust and the opportunities for the town to invest in the project.
According to Dunbar, the property has four important characteristics making it valuable to preserve: extensive wetlands and oyster farms, rich wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and historic sites of early settlements. The property has 3,300 feet of frontage on Squam Creek.
The preserve would offer hiking trails, skiing, snowmobiling, hunting, and fishing, as well as the preservation of a portion of the town’s history. The 144-acre parcel of land includes the first two lots settled on the island by the Dunton and Hodgdon families. Timothy Dunton was one the earliest settlers of the island, arriving in the 1740s.
The land has been owned by the Segerstrom family since 1959. The town assesses the value of the property at $772,000, while a recent appraisal placed the value at $511,000. The total cost of the project is $536,000. The Segerstrom family is willing to deduct $111,000 from the sale price; the trust has included another $25,000 for the stewardship of the property and transaction cost. The funding sources include a Kennebec Estuary Land Trust grant of $150,000, challenge gifts of $120,000, and a community campaign match of $155,000, which includes the $50,000 pledge from the town, less than 10 percent of the total cost.
Dunbar said the down side to the project is the loss of slightly more than $6,200 per year in tax revenue. For a home assessed at $100,000, the $50,000 pledge, if the town chooses to pay for it with a 20-year loan, would cost $1.67 per year.
After Dunbar completed his presentation, he invited questions and comments.
Westport Island resident Joe Donahue asked if all-terrain vehicles would be allowed on the property, and Dunbar said they would not.
Donahue asked if there was more than one appraisal done on the property.
Dunbar said the land trust had one appraisal done.
Ruth Nelson, who has been a strong opponent of the town pledging the money toward the project, said she is concerned about retirees and low-income residents who struggle to pay their taxes now. Removing the property from the tax rolls would increase their taxes.
Resident Donna Curry said, “I am a working woman, and probably will be the rest of my life. I believe it is my responsibility as a citizen to support the preservation of properties like this. What it gives us is so powerful.”
William Cooney said he is in favor of the land being preserved, but did express concern about the tax impact. “If you make only $30,000 a year, the increase is a big deal,” he said.
Another resident said she and her husband make about $30,000 and support the project. “Poor people could never afford to buy land like this to walk on and enjoy,” she said.
Resident Joan Sartoris said, “Perhaps instead of the cost to preserve the land, we should consider the cost of not buying it.” She said the land could be sold for development, and one of the town’s largest undeveloped land parcels would be lost forever.
Sartoris told the group she had moved to Westport Island for the quality of life there, and commended the land trust for its interest in preserving it. “It’s the wealth of Maine,” Sartoris said.
Dick Barker, a descendant of the Dunton family, also spoke in favor of the project.
The taxpayers that expressed concern about the loss of tax revenue to the town, and the burden on taxpayers to pick up the difference, did express support for the preservation of the land, just not for the town to pledge $50,000 toward the purchase.
Dunbar was asked why the land trust just didn’t raise all the money. He said it is important to have the town’s support when applying for grants. “One of the first questions on a grant is ‘Does the town support it, or what is the town’s support?” he said.
The voters will decide whether to pledge the money in a referendum vote on June 14, and will decide on the funding source – if necessary – on June 25.