PORTLAND — City officials hope to use the preservation of a wooded area off Canco Road to untangle a legal problem that predates the arrival of the Portland Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field in the mid-1990s.

The city violated the terms of a $115,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund grant more than 20 years ago when the public baseball field was turned into the home stadium of the minor league baseball team.

The federal grant required the city-owned property to remain a public open space. When the city chose to build the stadium, the state directed Portland to find other open space to replace it.

That still hasn’t been done, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. “For some reason, it was never pursued by the city or state.”

In 1983, the city received the grant to improve Hadlock Field for public use, plus $192,500 for improvements to neighboring Fitzpatrick Stadium.

In 1986, the state warned the city that if it ever proceeded with plans to develop Hadlock Field into a professional baseball stadium, it would violate the terms of the federal grant and would have to replace the field with new open space, which would need prior approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“I recommend that the city not try a conversion, but seek another site for the professional team,” wrote John Picher of the Maine Department of Conservation, in a letter dated Oct. 18, 1986.

The city went forward with the $3.2 million stadium project in the early 1990s, without dedicating other land for public open space. The Sea Dogs started playing there in 1994.

Clegg said the legal issue resurfaced two years ago, while the city was reviewing its operation of the Riverside Golf Course, which was also built with federal funds. The state reiterated the city’s obligation regarding Hadlock Field earlier this year.

“I have tried to get a response from the city in the past two years but have yet had any correspondence from Portland,” wrote Mick Rogers of the state Division of Parks and Lands in a letter to City Manager Mark Rees dated Jan. 23.

Rogers, who oversees the state’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, said in his letter that the city must “find property of equal or greater appraised value of Hadlock Field, not be(ing) currently used for outdoor recreation, and open this replacement property to outdoor recreation.”

The land swap would need approval from the National Park Service, Rogers wrote.

The city is now working with the state to determine whether last year’s acquisition and protection of the 12.9-acre Canco Woods would satisfy the requirement. Clegg said the city is hiring an assessor — at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 — to assess the values of Hadlock Field and Canco Woods.

Residents took action when the wooded parcel, which has a network of trails and has historically been used as public recreation space, was under contract to be sold and likely developed. A private fundraising campaign led by residents generated more than $270,000 from more than 200 donors, and the city contributed $75,000 toward the purchase of the land, which was finalized in December.

City attorney Danielle West-Chuhta recommended recently that the City Council delay a proposed rezoning of Canco Woods from light industrial to recreation open space until the grant issue is resolved.

However, the rezoning is largely symbolic.

Portland Trails already holds a permanent conservation easement for Canco Woods, protecting it from development, said Greg Caprorossi, who was project manager for the Trust for Public Lands, which helped broker the deal to save Canco Woods from development.

That means the council’s delay in rezoning it as recreational open space has little effect, he said.

“I think it’s a great gesture by the city to change the zoning, but zoning can be changed at any time,” Caprorossi said. “The property is already conserved in perpetuity.”

The group still must raise $15,000 toward its planned $20,000 stewardship endowment to care for the property, he said.

The city is considering other options to satisfy the grant requirement. Its staff recently approached the city’s Land Bank Commission about buying an undeveloped parcel at 421 Warren Ave. for possible open space and affordable housing.

The 36.2-acre property has an assessed value of $670,000, but was sold to the current owner, JMC Warren Ave. LLC, for $2.6 million in 2006.

The property recently was approved for sale for less than the owner owes, said Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky in a memo to the Land Bank Commission, dated June 5.

Bobinsky said the property is at the headwaters of Capisic Brook, one of five urban-impaired streams the city is required to clean up. It’s a key parcel to protect from development, he wrote.

“This may be a unique opportunity to obtain this property,” Bobinsky wrote.

City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who co-chairs the city’s Land Bank Commission, said no action was taken on the proposal, but the commission indicated that the acquisition was worth pursuing.

When asked what the penalty would be if the city failed to comply with the grant requirement, Rogers said in an email “it is ultimately the state of Maine’s responsibility and will work with Portland to come to a resolution.”

Leeman said she wasn’t surprised to hear about the unresolved issue surrounding the Hadlock Field grant.

“I don’t think this was in any way deliberate by the city,” she said.

Clegg said the Sea Dogs are not at risk of losing their home stadium. 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings