WINDHAM – After a failed attempt at the polls to preserve one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in Cumberland County, a combination of local, state and federal preservation groups has purchased 217 acres of the Clark Farm off Route 202 in Windham.

The land was part of a 551-acre parcel owned by Larry and Ann Clark that has been in the Clark family since 1948, when the land was purchased by Larry’s father, John Clark. Larry Clark grew up on the parcel and farmed the land, which borders the Pleasant River and encompasses land on both sides of Route 202 near Swett Road.

In the deal announced Tuesday, the Clark family received $230,000 for the 217-acre parcel as well as $1.07 million for giving up development rights and agreeing to an agricultural conservation easement on the 217-acre parcel. The preservation groups are now looking for someone to farm the land.

“In effect, we have bought the development rights to the property and will have a working farm easement,” said Wolfe Tone, Maine state director of The Trust for Public Land, which organized much of the fundraising effort.

In November 2009, the Clark Farm property was the subject of a town referendum brought forth by the Windham Land Trust that asked taxpayers to bond a total of $1.55 million toward the purchase price of the entire 551-acre Clark Farm. Windham voters narrowly defeated the referendum, 3,515 to 3,164.

According to Tone, funding came from several private and government sources. The $230,000 purchase price included $145,000 from the Maine Farmland Trust’s Buy-Protect-Sell program, and $85,000 raised from private contributions by Trust for Public Land. Funding for the $1.07 million easement included $535,000 from the Land for Maine’s Future program and a $535,000 federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program award.

“Clark Farm and Forest is a terrific conservation resource for both creating new farming opportunities near Portland and public access for fishing and hiking along the Pleasant River,” Tone said. “We’re proud to have partnered with Maine Farmland Trust and Windham Land Trust to achieve this important conservation success, and grateful to Maine for their seminal Land for Maine’s Future program, without which this success would not have been possible.”

Likewise, Don Marean, chairman of the Land for Maine’s Future Board and a farmer from Hollis, supported the purchase saying, “For years the Clark family has done its part in keeping this farm going, protecting the prime farmland soils on the farm, and making farmland available for future farmers in Windham. The conservation of important agricultural soils, preservation of agricultural and natural resource-based businesses and maintenance of wildlife habitat and open space are important to Maine people and consistent with LMF’s mission.”

Didn’t quit

The announcement this week may surprise some in Windham who remember the Clark Farm purchase being a contentious issue in the 2009 campaign.

In the year and a half since the vote, the Windham Land Trust, with help from the Maine Farmland Trust and Trust for Public Land, continued to search for funds to purchase the property. While the groups sought donations, the Clark family waited, wanting to preserve what is one of southern Maine’s largest undeveloped open spaces.

Dennis Hawkes, president of the Windham Land Trust, praised the Clarks’ willingness to wait rather than sell to a developer, saying he is pleased the property will be preserved in its current form.

“The whole town won on this one,” Hawkes said Wednesday. “We get to still see and use the land as we have in the past, and a business gets to be there as well.”

The business Hawkes is referring to would be the agricultural operation that would take over farming the land from the Clarks. Currently, 80 acres of the 217-acre parcel is wooded, leaving about 140 acres open. A farmer, Hawkes said, is expected to be determined within a matter of months, and will be able to purchase the property at a reduced cost since the parcel is in a farm zone and has a conservation easement. Hawkes said the farmer would be able to build a farmhouse and barn but any other uses would be prohibited. The Windham Land Trust will hold the easement until a farmer is determined, after which time the Maine Farmland Trust will maintain the easement.

“The plan is to get the land into the hands of a farmer as soon as possible. Now that the property has been preserved with an easement, it will sell at its value as farmland, rather than its value as developable land. This means the land is far more affordable,” said John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust, which was established in 1999 and is focused on protecting Maine’s farmland and keeping agricultural lands working.

According to Piotti, not only does the purchase preserve farmland, but it’s also enabling a farmer to buy farmland in Windham, which like other greater Portland communities has seen urban sprawl gobble up tracts for housing.

“In many communities outside Portland, farmers simply cannot afford to compete with developers on land prices,” said Piotti. “That’s exactly why we need projects like this, which preserves farmland and then sells it to farmers.”

The Clarks will continue to live on the part of the property that remains in their possession. If the large parcel had gone on the open market, the Clarks likely could have received far larger an amount, especially since the Clarks first showed interest in selling several years before the economic slowdown. In fact, the entire 551-acre parcel had an estimated value of $4.6 million prior to the real estate slump. But the Clarks waited, wanting to find a buyer who would preserve the land.

Regarding his father’s love of the property that hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers and cross country skiers have been able to use under the Clarks’ ownership, Larry Clark said Tuesday, “I think he would think this is a good thing to do.”

“We’re very happy,” Clark added, “If it hadn’t gone through, we would have had to sell on the open market, which would have meant speculators who might have developed the property.”

Wolfe Tone also praised the Clarks for their willingness to preserve the land.

“In today’s day and age, they are to be commended,” Tone said.

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