Kennebec Land Trust celebrates acquisition of Augusta’s Howard Hill

AUGUSTA — Howard Hill, 164 acres that provide a wooded, undeveloped backdrop to the State House tucked between otherwise largely developed areas of Augusta and Hallowell, now belongs to the Kennebec Land Trust.

Land trust officials closed on the property last week and plan, eventually, to give it to the city of Augusta to be preserved, they hope, forever.v

They did so without $337,500 in voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future funds awarded to assist in the purchase but held up by Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to issue $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and $5 million approved in 2012. Those bonds include money the Land for Maine’s Future program has approved for 30 conservation projects, including the $337,500 Kennebec Land Trust officials were counting on to help fund the $1.2 million Howard Hill project.

To replace that held-up state money and still meet its deadline to close on the Howard Hill property, the land trust took out a loan from Kennebec Savings Bank. Land trust board members said they hope and expect the Land For Maine’s Future program will resume awarding money after the Legislature reconvenes in January 2016, and the trust finally will be awarded the money it then can use to repay the loan.

At a celebration of its 25th-anniversary capital campaign Thursday, land trust leaders announced $961,000 has been pledged toward the $1.2 million fundraising goal for the Howard Hill project with $438,000 of that received already. However, that $961,000 “pledged” includes the $337,500 that LePage refuses to release.

“The biggest hole in our budget is the big number Land for Maine’s Future awarded us, but which we have not received,” said Howard Lake, a member of the land trust’s board of directors. “We really hope there can be a resolution for this and other projects also funded by the bonds the governor has refused to issue.”

LePage has acknowledged he held back the Land for Maine’s Future money to try to gain support for a proposal to increase timber harvesting on state-owned land to help pay for home energy-efficiency programs. He has also asked the Office of Policy and Management to review Land for Maine’s Future, and his three appointees to the Land for Maine’s Future board have been absent from its last two meetings, leaving the board without a quorum.

The land trust acquired Howard Hill on Oct. 7, paying $925,000 for the property, according to Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust.

The land is made up of three parcels previously owned by Sumner Lipman and two corporations run by him and valued at about $171,000 for tax purposes, according to city assessment records.

The scenic, undeveloped property accessible from a number of informal access points in Augusta could provide and protect recreational opportunities, scenic views and wildlife habitat a short walk from the urban areas of both Augusta and Hallowell. It also provides an unspoiled backdrop of trees behind the State House.

City Manager William Bridgeo praised the land trust for saving the property, which he said he had feared would be developed. He described driving into Augusta, seeing the spectacular backdrop of forest of Howard Hill above the State House as he neared the city and how he “felt, with despair, that backdrop was going to go away.”

Mary Denison, president of the Kennebec Land Trust, said the group already was planning a major capital campaign as part of its 25th anniversary to increase the number of acres it can help preserve, establish endowment and conservation funds, and increase membership, when the opportunity came along to acquire and preserve Howard Hill. So the group ended up conducting two major fundraising campaigns at once.

“Everyone stepped up, especially in the face of the tragic news about Land for Maine’s Future,” she said, praising donors and fundraisers.

The public can use the property now, at its own risk, though there are no maintained trails there, trust officials said.

The property is spread between a point just south of Capitol Street to the Hallowell line at the former Stevens School complex off Winthrop Street. Informal hiking trails extend from the Stevens School site into and through Howard Hill. There are other unofficial access points off Sewall Street and Ganneston Drive.

Public meetings are planned this winter to seek community input on the long-term development of a management plan for Howard Hill, which officials anticipate eventually will include development of parking areas and trails.

The land trust plans to give the land to the city with a conservation easement attached requiring it to remain undeveloped. Its future use, trust officials said, could include outdoor recreation, timber harvesting and the protection of scenic views, water quality and wildlife habitat. It could remain open to hunting, though that will be decided by the city as the future landowner.

However, the city won’t get the land until the land trust pays off the loan it took out for the purchase, because it can’t give away land that hasn’t been fully paid off.

Trust officials also plan to raise $100,000 to give to the city as an endowment to help care for the property.

Andrew Silsby, president of Kennebec Savings Bank, which made the loan to the land trust, said Thursday’s event was special for him because his father, David Silsby, was there at the celebration at the Viles Homestead in Augusta, and his father had fought for years to get the state to preserve the land.

Newspaper clips indicate the state sought to acquire the land in 1969 but didn’t go through with the proposed purchase of 190 acres for about $500,000.

The announcement the nonprofit land trust had closed on Howard Hill came at a celebration of the trust’s 25th anniversary and its fundraising campaign tied to the anniversary.

To date, the Conservation Across Generations 25th Anniversary Capital Campaign has generated $910,000 in pledges, $631,000 of it received, toward the $1 million goal for a conservation fund; $961,000 in pledges, $438,000 of it received, toward the $1.2 million goal for Howard Hill; $360,000 in pledges, $53,000 of it received, toward a 10-year goal of $1 million for an endowment; $322,000 in pledges, all of it received, toward a $500,000 two-year goal for a gifted lands program; and a campaign total of $2.55 million in pledges, $1.44 million of it received, toward the goal of $3.7 million.

The trust still is raising money for the Howard Hill project. Kerchner said a donor has committed $150,000 as a challenge grant to match other gifts dollar for dollar. Those wishing to make a donation for the Howard Hill project or other Kennebec Land Trust conservation projects may contact its office at 377-2848; mail to P.O. Box 261, Winthrop ME 04364; or make contact online at www.tklt.org.

Framed photographs of Howard Hill were given to the city, Kennebec Savings Bank and Kennebec Land Trust board members Thursday for their contributions to the Howard Hill project.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @kedwardskj