BY KEITH EDWARDS KENNEBEC JOURNAL
AUGUSTA — After nearly three years of fundraising and repeated criticism from Gov. Paul LePage, the effort to preserve the Howard Hill property and transfer it to the city of Augusta is nearly complete.
If the City Council votes to approve an agreement with the Kennebec Land Trust, the largely unspoiled 164-acre tract could be given to the city on Friday.
Mayor David Rollins praised land trust officials Thursday for their persistence in pursuing the project and raising the money to preserve Howard Hill. Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Winthrop-based land trust, said people in the area have suggested for decades that the land needed to be preserved.
“You certainly were given a few hurdles and obstacles and some discouragement, but persistence is a grand word,” Rollins said to Kerchner after a presentation to city councilors. “It is one I’ve used in my life. I may not have talent, but I have persistence, and I recognize it when I see it. So congratulations, and we know you’ll be as happy as everybody in the city when we finalize this and get things going.”
The terms of the agreement conveying the land, which is best known for providing a scenic wooded backdrop to the State House complex, specify the hilly property shall never be developed nor subdivided, shall have its natural resources protected, and shall remain open to the public.
The originally proposed terms of the agreement with the city stated the privately funded land trust would give the city, in addition to the land, a $100,000 endowment to help the city maintain the property and form a plan for it.
However, since state Land for Maine’s Future funding for the $1.2 million project was slashed from the previously promised $337,500 to $163,500 last October, the land trust has proposed to modify its agreement with the city.
Instead, the land trust, according to City Manager William Bridgeo, will give the city $25,000, be credited $7,500 spent to have a forest management plan done for the property, and pay the remaining $67,500 to the city in the next two years.
Bridgeo said that seems fair and that he has no doubt the land trust will be able to raise the additional money and give it to the city.
Five of six members of the Land for Maine’s Future Board, all of whom were either appointed by LePage in 2016 or are officials in his administration, voted to reduce the state’s contribution to the project, expressing concerns about the accuracy of the roughly $1 million appraisal of the property, which was sold to the land trust for about $925,000 by local attorney Sumner Lipman.
The property is assessed by the city, for tax purposes, at $171,000.
Land trust officials have defended what they pay for such properties, stating they have the properties professionally appraised based upon their “highest and best use,” or what their value would be if they were developed.
The trust took out a loan to close the funding gap so the project could proceed.
“There was a setback when the governor decided he didn’t like this project and did everything he could to block it,” Bridgeo said. “In the end, recently, Land for Maine’s Future, which originally promised $337,500 toward the project, cut its allocation in half. Not to be deterred, the champions from the land trust redoubled their efforts to make that money up. And now they’re ready to proceed. They’re ready to have a closing with the city.”
Kerchner said numerous individuals, businesses and foundations donated money so the trust could buy the land.
The property is named for the family of Capt. James Howard, one of the founders of Augusta.
It was later owned by local publishing magnate William Howard Gannett, who in the 1890s bought some 450 acres, including Howard Hill, where he created Ganneston Park.
The park included gardens, ponds, carriage paths and trails he opened to the public. The property, tucked between developed parcels in Augusta and extending to the Augusta-Hallowell line, provides sweeping views of the area, including the Maine State House dome.
“We want everyone to realize what a remarkable landscape this is for the city of Augusta,” Kerchner said.
City officials said a plan will need to be developed to provide public access points to the property. Among the limited existing access points is an old carriage road where Ganneston Drive comes to a dead end.
Rollins, a resident of the Ganneston Park neighborhood, said the city has work to do to figure out how people will obtain access to the site.
He said it’s possible a parking lot could be built at the end of Ganneston Drive.
Kerchner said the land trust already has had discussions with the developer of the formerly state-owned Stevens School campus in Hallowell, Matt Morrill, about also providing public access to Howard Hill from the proposed development there.
Terms of the proposed agreement require the city to complete a conservation plan within a year of receiving the property.
Kerchner said the land trust doesn’t want to limit how the property may be used, other than four basic requirements included in the deal: that the city, in perpetuity, protect the natural resources of the site, never develop it, never subdivide it and guarantee public access.