March 4, 2010

Access to popular hilltop threatened

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/staff photographer... Friday, October 2, 2009...Part of the scenic views to be seen from the top of Quaker Hill in Casco. Note the "sold" realty sign at left.

Staff Writer

CASCO — Ever since Hacker Hall cut down some trees and created a field on his family's hilltop here decades ago, visitors have been drawn to its panoramic views of the Sebago Lake region.

For the past 15 years, Hall's son and grandson have welcomed those visitors, even providing a parking area, picnic tables and a handicapped-accessible bathroom.

Now the popular spot known as Hacker's Hill is for sale. The summit and 52 surrounding acres of fields and forest are on the market for $1.69 million.

Neighbors, conservation groups and the owners themselves hope the land and public access can be preserved. But they agree that there's little funding available to make that happen.

''We'd like to sell it to an organization that would be able and willing to keep it open as we have,'' said Conrad Hall, Hacker Hall's son. But, he said, ''The money is so tight.''

Officially, the hill is named Quaker Hill. It's about five miles north of Sebago Lake, off Quaker Ridge Road.

The Quakers who settled the area included members of the Hall family, which has owned the hill and the nearby Hall Funeral Home for more than a century. Conrad Hall bought the hill from his father, who died in 2000.

''All that hill was just woodlands when I was growing up there,'' said Conrad Hall, now 73 years old. ''My father started clearing it, probably when I was in my early teens. He knew it was beautiful.''

Hacker's Hill stands just 753 feet above sea level, but the clearing at its summit provides a 360-degree view of trees, mountains and lakes. At this time of year, it's an especially popular place to see southern Maine's forests turn gold and red.

Hacker Hall always wanted to allow others to enjoy that scenery, but he eventually had to block the entrance because of vandalism and trash, his son said.

About 15 years ago, Don Fowler, a local man who had trained as a missionary, volunteered to spruce up the hilltop.

''He fell in love with the place. He said if he could go up there, he would keep it clean and do a lot of work,'' Hall said. ''He's enabled us to keep it open over the years.''

Fowler built rock walls, put in gardens and collected trash. He and Conrad Hall maintained the fields and eventually put in the tables and the bathroom.

Fowler said he and other visitors have a spiritual connection to the hilltop.

''People kind of consider that their church up there,'' Fowler said. ''I didn't do it for myself. I was just hoping people would find the Lord through that place up there.''

Fowler organizes a Sunday morning mission service near a statue of Jesus. Nearby is a cross formed by the trunk of a tree that was struck by lightning in 1997, Fowler said.

The lightning splintered the tree and created the cross, but spared a small birdhouse that was mounted on it, he said.

Hall and Fowler open and close the gate five days a week.

They leave it closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although visitors can still walk up the steep 400-foot-long driveway.

On clear summer and fall days, the parking lot always has several cars in it, Fowler said.

Locals make regular trips to what's quietly known in the region as a place where one can enjoy a panoramic view without having to hike up a mountain. Even out-of-state tourists come, sent by operators of the region's summer camps, Fowler said.

''Many people don't know that it's privately owned,'' Conrad Hall said.

''We get no financial help. It comes out of pocket.''

To the north of the summit are two large cell-phone towers. The family leased the land for the towers through 2025, but doesn't collect any ongoing revenue from them.

Hall and Fowler sometimes open the hill for weddings and take modest payments to help with upkeep.

Hall, who co-owns the hill with his son, said it's getting hard for them to keep up with the maintenance, and that the hill is a drain financially.

''We don't really want to sell it,'' Hall said. ''Finances are becoming a factor -- I'm retired.''

The Halls talked to Casco officials a couple of years ago about selling it to the town, said Dave Morton, the town manager.

''It's traditionally been a very popular spot,'' said Morton, who often visits.

''We just haven't been in a position to be able to move forward and buy it. There just weren't the local public resources to be able to do that.''

Leaders of the Loon Echo Land Trust have spoken with the Hall family over the years about a conservation deal, said Executive Director Carrie Walia.

''While we know we both have a similar vision for the property, it is a challenge to figure out how to come up with funds to protect that,'' she said.

Money for land conservation has become increasingly hard to come by in recent months, and the organization is already fundraising to buy 1,500 acres on Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton, she said.

''There's been a lot of neighbors and visitors to the hill who have contacted us to express their appreciation for the hill and what it means to them and their families, so we know there is a lot of public support out there,'' she said.

''We'll continue to research it, but the price tag will definitely be a challenge.''

With the price at $1.69 million, it's not clear how soon a private buyer will emerge, either. Conrad Hall said there has been some interest, but no solid offers.

Much of the land on the slopes of the hill probably can't be developed, said Morton, the town manager.

It's really the flat summit cleared by Hacker Hall decades ago that makes the property so unusual, and valuable.

Information posted by the real estate agency -- The Cathy Manchester Team at Keller Williams Realty -- boasts of views from Mount Washington to the Atlantic Ocean.

''This would make a fabulous family compound,'' it says.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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