November 6, 2012

Portland adds its financial might to preservation effort

Councilors unanimously agree to contribute up to $75,000 toward the purchase of Canco Woods.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The city is one step closer to preserving nearly 13 acres of forest and wetlands off Canco Road long eyed for public open space, but recently threatened with industrial development.

click image to enlarge

Neighbors of Canco Woods posted signs in April announcing a meeting to brainstorm ways to save their woods from industrial development. It has long been used as a park.

Gordon Chibroski / 2012 Staff File Photo

click image to enlarge

In this April 2012 file photo, neighbors of Canco Woods are upset it is being sold and want to do something about saving it. Here, Tim Willoughby, carrying his daughter, Maeve, 2, and walking with his son Thomas, 4, enjoys one of the many natural paths that traverse the almost 13 acre parcel. He lives in the Back Cove area near the corner of Ocean Ave. and Codman and enjoys walking the trails in the woods as often as he can with his family.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved spending up to $75,000 toward the purchase of Canco Woods from an account dedicated to preserving open space.

But stars still must align if the entire parcel is to be protected.

The group is still awaiting word on about $90,000 in state grants. If the grants are awarded, residents still must raise another $40,000, said Tobin Scopione, an officer of the Friends of Canco Woods.

Scopione said the group will soon be launching a public fundraising campaign.

"This is the homestretch of the campaign where every donation matters," Scopione said after the meeting. "We're thrilled the city is joining this partnership. We couldn't do it without them."

The Friends of Canco Woods formed last spring after a developer entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement for the 12.9 acre parcel.

The land is owned by the Union Power Water Co., which is affiliated with Central Maine Power Co. The company is looking to unload the land by the end of the year.

Residents have enjoyed Canco Woods for decades. They have built trails and bridges throughout the property, and it is also a popular ice-skating spot.

"There aren't many wild woods in Portland left to play in and go on walks," said 9-year-old Elwen Bernard, who could barely see over the podium. "It's a wonderful and magic place and should not be disturbed."

The Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit group with an office on Danforth Street, entered into an agreement to buy the land for $350,000, after the sale to the developer fell through.

The Trust for Public Lands gave area residents six months to raise the $400,000 needed to close the sale. The extra $50,000 would go toward maintaining the land.

The friends have received about $200,000 in pledges, half from about 100 area residents and the balance from two other residents, according to Wolfe Tone, state director for the Trust for Public Lands.

The city would own the land once the money is raised, but Portland Trails would be given a permanent conservation easement.

There was some discussion of a suggestion that a few acres of the land be set aside for future housing development, and the rest left undeveloped.

But Jim Devine, a homeless advocate who grew up near the woods, said the open-space proposal should be judged on its own merits. The "vital needs" of housing and open space shouldn't be pitted against one another, he said.

"There is a need for housing in this town," said Devine, who used to skate at the property as a child. "There is a need for wild space. There is a need for a place to have a community, which is what this place is."

Councilor Edward Suslovic asked whether the spending question could be postponed so the housing idea could be examined. But Tone said any delay would sink the deal, which must close by the end of the year because state funding is contingent on preserving the entire parcel.

"Everything unravels," Tone said of any delay. "We're back at square one."

Councilor John Anton supported the allocation of city funds, but asked the city to develop a more robust vetting process to identify potential housing options.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who helped the neighbors organize and serves on the Land Bank Commission, which unanimously endorsed the proposal, complimented the residents for coming together on the project.

Leeman and other councilors said the residents set a precedent for other neighborhoods with land under threat of development.

"You put your money where your mouth is," she said. "In all the years I have served as a city councilor I have never ever seen an effort like this when you tell a neighborhood, 'If you want it, go get it.'

"And they did."

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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