AUGUSTA — City councilors said they are excited about a land trust’s proposal to buy and give the city a large parcel of undeveloped land that forms the wooded backdrop behind the State House.
Winthrop-based nonprofit group Kennebec Land Trust has an agreement to buy the 164-acre Howard Hill property, which stretches from just south of Capitol Street to the Hallowell line at the Stevens School complex off Winthrop Street.
Trust officials proposed Thursday that once they raise enough money to buy the property, which they said has statewide historic and scenic value, they want to transfer it to the city with the condition that it be preserved perpetually.
“We believe this is a historic opportunity,” said Brian Kent, president of the land trust. “For 80 years people, beginning with the Gannetts, have tried to conserve this property.
“It’s an opportunity to conserve open space,” he said. “Also an opportunity to meet what your comprehensive plan calls for — a greenbelt in Augusta. And it also opens up recreational opportunities.”
The land trust would transfer the property along with a $100,000 endowment to help the city manage it.
Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron said the project is exciting, but said he has already heard from constituents with concerns about it.
He said a Sewall Street resident and abutter to the lot told him she’s concered about public use of the site, which can be accessed from a number of points including one near her home and may become overwhelming for abutters.
At-large Councilor David Rollins said the city, as the potential owner, would have control over what access points are developed for the property.
Land trust officials agreed the city would be able to determine how, and from where, the land could be accessed.
“What the city would do with it would be up to the city,” said Jerry Bly, a conservation consultant and project manager of the Howard Hill proposal. “You could manage it for sustainable forestry. You could focus on the wildlife of the area. There are old carriage trails that people use for hiking. You can decide how to use it based on what budget you can afford, and decide how best to manage that use.”
Those uses would not include residential or commercial development, however. The land trust would hold an easement on it, preventing it from being developed.
Mayor William Stokes said councilors will discuss whether to accept the land Thursday. City Manager William Bridgeo said the discussion will take place at an information meeting and a vote would take place at a later business meeting.
Howard Hill was named for Capt. James Howard, an Augusta settler and founder and commander of Fort Western. In the 1890s, Howard’s great-great-grandson, William Howard Gannett, bought the property on the hill and made Ganneston Park, complete with small ponds, carriage paths and trails, according to the land trust.
His son started Guy Gannett Communications, which owned the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and several television stations until 1998.
Today some local residents walk the carriage trails on Howard Hill, with informal public access points in Augusta and Hallowell. On the hill, people can look down on the State House, the Kennebec River to the north and south, Augusta’s east side and distant hills.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Ganneston and Parkwood neighborhoods were developed on the north and west side of Howard Hill.
Another, 55-lot subdivision was approved for the top of the hill, but never built.
Bly said the property would be challenging and costly to develop with housing, but said the site is so beautiful, if left unprotected it would be likely to be developed.
“If you go up and stand on the ridgeline and look out at the capitol, the river, the views… someday, somehow, somebody would make that a beautiful place to live,” Bly said. “But in the process have an impact on the view we all enjoy.”
Exact terms of the purchase agreement were not released, but the land trust said it will have an option to buy the property from its owner, Augusta attorney Sumner Lipman, in October 2015 for what Kent said was less than fair market value.
City assessment records show the land is made up of three parcels owned by Lipman and two corporations run by him, worth about $171,000 for tax purposes. At its current property tax rate, the city would lose about $3,100 annually in taxes by taking over the property.
The overall cost of the project, including the purchase price and other costs, is about $1.5 million. The land trust wants to raise $1.25 million of the $1.5 million it needs to complete the project, officials said, with much of that money expected to come from foundations, private donors and the public Land for Maine’s Future program. It could take two years for the transaction to be completed.
Sue Bell, of Augusta, a land trust board member, said the land has been in the trust’s sights for over two decades. She said the trust spent the past year in intensive negotiations with the landowner.
Theresa Kerchner, the land trust’s executive director, said the trust would raise the money to buy the project and for the $100,000 endowment to the city to help preserve it.
She said they have already been talking to foundations about contributing funding for the project, and anticipate about two-thirds of the money would come from those sources. That, she said, would leave a about $300,000 to be raised privately by land trust members and local residents.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647 [email protected] Twitter: @kedwardskj