With suburban sprawl from Portland now inching its way into the Lakes Region, towns around Sebago Lake are taking a close look at how to protect open space and preserve what is seen as the rural character of the region.

And the town of Casco is leading the charge to preserve its large tracts of forests, mountains and open fields with an ambitious new plan.

Casco’s “open space plan” identifies 7,700 acres of land in Casco ideal for conservation and a series of steps the town should take in order to preserve this open space.

Open space is a popular term nowadays when it comes to town planning. Simply put, open space is undeveloped land: forests, fields, farmland, mountain ranges and habitat for wildlife.

The plan hinges on the willingness of landowners to not develop acres of their land for a period of years in exchange for a property tax reduction. Because of the mechanics of state law, these landowners would still have to pay property taxes on the acreage at first, but would then be fully reimbursed by the town for those taxes.

If all landowners of 7,700 acres were willing to forfeit development rights in exchange for a tax reimbursement, the loss in property tax revenue to the town would be about $60,000 and would be covered by tax money set aside in an open space account, said Town Manager David Morton.

The cost to individual taxpayers is estimated at an additional $10 a year in property taxes if the town were to fully fund the open space program.

Morton said the open space plan came from seeing the fast rate of growth in towns like Windham and Raymond and a fear that Casco will be the next town put under pressure from the suburban push.

Last year, the town formed an Open Space Committee to look into what could be done to preserve land.

Knowing that the preservation of open space often tows the line between public and private interests, the committee decided to base the plan on volunteer participation instead of forcing open space zoning.

The only involuntary part of the open space plan is a “right of first refusal” where landowners in the conservation acreage, who want to sell their land, must offer it first to the town at fair market value before it goes on the open real estate market.

At Casco’s annual town meeting in June, voters approved the plan by a two-thirds majority. Now the town is putting together a “Conservation Commission” to oversee the open space plan and flush out details of the program.

“It’s kind of a neat and exciting effort to preserve a large part of what people find special about Casco,” Morton said.

A simple visit to Hacker’s Hill on Quaker Ridge illustrates this special character. Off Route 11, a long winding road wraps around a hill that overlooks lakes, expanses of forestland and mountain ranges that line the horizon in all directions.

At the summit is a mission sanctuary where Reverend Gordon Fowler holds Sunday church services. And looking out across the rolling forest and farmland to the fog shrouding the mountains, there is certainly a spiritual feeling about the peak.

This scenic spot in Casco is open to the public from sunrise to sunset, thanks to the generosity of Conrad and Jeff Hall who now own the land.

Their father, Hacker, cleared the peak with the brothers during the 1950s and built a road to the summit so that everyone in town could enjoy the awe-inspiring views.

Conrad Hall is reserving judgment on Casco’s new open space plan until more of the details are finalized. He questions how it would be set up and who would maintain the land after it’s taken by the town into a conservation agreement.

Not long ago, the brothers had to close Hacker’s Hill because of littering and the cost of mowing the fields around the peak, but then Rev. Fowler agreed to maintain the land and the brothers agreed to reopen it to the public.

Though Hall has doubts about the mechanics of the plan, he and his brother are committed to preserving this piece of Casco open space on their own.

“We’d definitely like to hang onto it as long as we can and keep it open,” Hall said.

The Open Space plan came out of a direct look at how development was sweeping through the region, said David Puntel, chair of the Open Space Committee.

The committee mapped out the 7,700 acres for conservation through a study called “Beginning with Habitat,” an assessment of Casco’s wildlife habitat by a series of environmental groups including the Maine Audubon Society.

The goal is to both preserve this land for posterity and to protect wildlife habitat. As part of the conservation agreement, landowners would have to allow public access to the land for certain types of recreation like hiking, bike riding, hunting and/or fishing.

Puntel is pleased by the public support for the plan, shown by the annual town meeting, and is excited to see the hard work of the committee come to fruition.

“The community as a whole wants to protect this land,” Puntel said. “If this is important to the people, we should be willing to protect this.”

Map of Casco outlines 7,700 acres of land, seen here shaded, that the town is hoping to preserve as open space through a conservation lease program.

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