Accepting the 164-acre Howard Hill could commit the city to spend money to comply with future state rules.
AUGUSTA — The city’s acquisition of 164-acre Howard Hill requires officials to sign a project agreement an attorney warns could possibly commit the city to spend money to stay in compliance with all current and future Land for Maine’s Future rules, regulations and policies.
City Manager William Bridgeo said he believes that “as a practical matter, there is minimal likelihood the city of Augusta will ever be forced to expend a burdensome amount of money to comply with future state requirements.”
But in a memorandum to the City Council, he said that part of the project agreement the city must sign with the state Land for Maine’s Future program, which is providing $163,500 for the project, could obligate the city to take whatever steps are necessary, including potentially spending city money, to stay in compliance with LMF regulations and policies.
AN AGREEMENT WITH SOME RISK
Following fundraising efforts, the Winthrop-based Kennebec Land Trust bought the land for about $925,000 in 2015, with plans to give it to the city, with a conservation easement, requiring it to be preserved and to remain undeveloped forever.
Bridgeo said because signing off on that agreement comes with at least some risk that it could obligate the city to spend money in the future, he’s bringing the question of whether to sign the agreement back to city councilors, who previously authorized him to sign paperwork to close the deal for the land with Kennebec Land Trust, subject to review of the documents by an attorney.
In preparing to close on the deal and accept the gift of the land from the land trust, Bridgeo said an attorney flagged a provision of the project agreement as potentially obligating the city to spend money to stay in compliance.
“It is this future unknown that concerns me,” Michael Lane, an attorney who reviewed closing documents for the city as part of the now delayed transfer of the undeveloped property from Kennebec Land Trust to the city, said in a memo to Bridgeo. “I cannot foresee what future (Land for Maine’s Future) policies may be and thus cannot advise the city as to what future compliance might entail.”
Asked for any examples of what could change on the heavily wooded property, which provides a scenic backdrop to the State House, Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said Tuesday the possible reasons could include someone dumping refuse on the land and causing environmental damage that needs to be cleaned up, or the discovery of an endangered species in the area that could require a higher level of preservation of habitat, or a disease striking the forest.
“It’s an open-ended liability. You don’t know what it could be,” St. Pierre said. “You can’t foresee what future Land for Maine’s Future policies might be, so you take on that liability in perpetuity.”
Bridgeo said he continues to believe the positive benefits of the Howard Hill acquisition justify some assumption of risk the state might someday require some unanticipated city funding for the property, but noted that decision is up to city councilors. And he said refusing to sign the agreement could jeopardize the entire project.
State officials said a number of other municipalities have signed similar agreements to receive Land for Maine’s Future grants, without objection, according to Bridgeo.
Councilors are scheduled to discuss the issue at an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the council chamber at Augusta City Center.
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: