The town of York is the beneficiary of enormous generosity on the part of many of its residents.

The Hartley Mason Estate preserves as a park for all who enjoy the harbor beach a spectacular promontory at the mouth of the York River overlooking the ocean cliffs. The town and neighboring property owners maintain an oceanside cliff walk.

Farther up the river, riparian property owners provide access for The Fisherman’s Walk upstream to the first of the bridges that cross the river.

Across the bridge, Historic New England and the Old York Historical Society maintain buildings that date to the 16th century, and the generosity of the Steedman family has preserved a wooded peninsula in its natural state for the enjoyment of hikers and naturalists.

Still farther upstream, the York Land Trust and the taxpayers of the entire state through the Land for Maine’s Future program have preserved thousands of acres running to the top of Mt. Agamenticus.

This area encompasses more than 10,000 acres and is one of the largest remaining expanses of undeveloped forestland in coastal New England. It’s known for its abundance of vernal pools, rich biodiversity and unique trail system. It is home to many of Maine’s rare plants and animals.

All of this territory provides for York residents and visitors a very tangible and easy-to- understand definition for that vague and perhaps overused phrase: quality of place.

Anyone who has ridden horseback along mountain trails, kayaked down the York River, splashed into the waves along the sandy beaches or simply enjoyed a sunrise or sunset from a wooded prospect over the harbor does not need the data from an economic impact study to be convinced of the value of these generous gifts. Nor do the innkeepers, restaurant owners and recreation outfitters need convincing of the very real commercial and employment values that flow from the public and private generosity that preserves and provides access to undeveloped land.

But perhaps the most interesting example of the economic benefits that can flow from the combination of public and private philanthropy is the Sewall’s Bridge dock project.

The dock and its tiny spot of land along the river — an important part of York’s working waterfront for hundreds of years — came up for sale in 2002 and might well have become the site of another lovely home squeezed into a tight spot along the riverside.

Instead, two York lobstermen — Jeff Donnell and Mark Sewall — made an offer to buy the property and began searching for a way to come up with the money. Over the course of a year, they assembled a team of financial partners and constructed a deal that would have put a smile on the faces of the cleverest financial engineers on Wall Street.

They bought the property for slightly more than twice what the cash flow from their lobster business could support and then sold a conservation easement to cover the balance.

Easy to say, but difficult to accomplish.

The Land Trust and individual donors had to be convinced that the deal was both legal and consistent with their philanthropic missions.

The IRS had to be convinced that there was a public purpose sufficiently valuable to justify nonprofit donations.

Coastal Enterprises Inc. had to be convinced that the project would serve in a truly effective and significant manner its mission to help preserve Maine’s working waterfronts.

The original lender had to be convinced that its collateral interests were secure beneath all the superstructure of secondary financing.

In the end, the concerns of all participants were met, Donnell and Sewall have been landing lobsters for several years and visitors to Sewall’s Bridge can today stand along its railing and cast for stripers or amble to the dock at its southern end and purchase fresh lobster.

Does the value flowing from a commercial lobster dock exceed the value some unknown homebuyer might have enjoyed living along the York River? Who knows? That’s a debate best left to philosophers.

But what is known is that if a value other than residential development is to be achieved, it takes a full community to envision and realize it.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]