While no vote was taken Thursday, the council appears to support the city manager's conclusion that the project is worth the risk of having to spend money later to comply with future state rules.
AUGUSTA — City councilors expressed support for moving ahead in closing on the acquisition of Howard Hill, a gift from the Kennebec Land Trust, despite concerns that signing an agreement required by the state for the project could commit the city to spending an unknown amount of money in the future.
The city’s acquisition of the 164-acre Howard Hill property requires officials to sign a project agreement that an attorney warned could possibly commit the city to spend money to stay in compliance with all current and future Land for Maine’s Future regulations, rules and policies.
This aerial photo taken on March 27, 2014, shows Howard Hill, 164 wooded acres that serve as the scenic forested backdrop for the State House in Augusta. Staff file photo by Joe Phelan
City Manager William Bridgeo said he thinks there is minimal likelihood the city of Augusta ever would be forced to expend a “burdensome” amount of money to comply with future state requirements.
A majority of councilors appeared to agree with him and to favor signing the agreement and moving ahead to close on the property, though no vote was taken Thursday.
Bridgeo said he’ll prepare an order for councilors to consider next week, confirming their previous authorization of him to sign the agreement and close on the property.
At-Large Councilor Mark O’Brien expressed concern about the deal obligating the city to pay the cost of complying with unknown future state regulations. He suggested the Kennebec Land Trust could sign an indemnification agreement with the city, agreeing to pay any future costs of complying with state regulations at the property.
“If the risk is as minimal as everybody would argue that it is, they (Kennebec Land Trust) shouldn’t have a real concern about indemnifying us on this,” O’Brien said.
Howard Lake, attorney for the land trust and a member of its board of directors, suggested any future unanticipated expenses associated with the property should be the responsibility of the city, as the owner, not the land trust, which raised $925,000 to buy the property to give it to the city, restricted by a conservation easement ensuring it will remain undeveloped forever.
“This seems like something that is part of the ownership of the city,” Lake said. “The city should take care of it” as it does all land owned by the city, he said.
Bridgeo 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, would obligate the city to take whatever steps are necessary, including potentially spending city money, to stay in compliance with Land for Maine’s Future regulations and policies.
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 brought 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, attorney Mike Lane flagged a provision of the project agreement as potentially obligating the city to spend money to stay in compliance with present and future Land for Maine’s Future regulations.
“It was that open-ended phrase that caused our attorney to say, ‘I can’t give you a green light on this without knowing you agree to this undefined, potential future liability, and accept it,'” Bridgeo told councilors Thursday.
Bridgeo said he continues to believe the positive benefits of the acquisition of Howard Hill, which is heavily wooded and provides a scenic backdrop to the State House, justify some assumption of risk the state might someday require some unanticipated city funding for the property, but said that decision is up to city councilors. He said refusing to sign the agreement could jeopardize the entire project.
Bridgeo said state officials said a number of other municipalities have signed similar agreements, with the same requirement, to receive Land for Maine’s Future grants, without objection.
Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the land trust, said in 10 years she’s received only two communications from the Land for Maine’s Future program about new regulations requiring action. One was that each property bought with grant funds from the program have a sign on them, noting the program’s assistance in purchasing each parcel, with the state providing the sign. The other was that an annual report be filed about the land.
Multiple councilors, including At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander, said they saw the risk of the city having to spend large sums of money to comply as minimal.
“Because the language is specifically limited to regulatory changes, I think the risk is tiny,” she said, noting the regulatory process would include opportunities for public comment, should the city, or others, wish to object to any such regulation changes. “I’m in favor of moving forward with the project agreement, and not waiting to do indemnification with a nonprofit group.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647