Whether to use $140,000 from the city’s land fund for a conservation easement on 9 acres of open space off Highland Avenue was a question that stymied the South Portland City Council earlier this fall.

Now, with more information in hand about the overall value of the undeveloped parcel, it appears that councilors are ready to move forward and release the land bond money to purchase the easement that would be held by the South Portland Land Trust.

In a workshop on Monday, held after the Current’s early Thanksgiving deadline, the council was set to discuss the conservation easement for the third time since January.

At the beginning of the year, developer Dan White, owner of HW Land Co., first approached the council about developing a nearly 12-acre property at 590 Highland Ave. to accommodate a 32-unit condo project.

As part of that original project White was willing to give the city the 9.3 acres known as Dow’s Woods, but that proposal would have required a zone change, which the City Council rejected arguing the project was simply too large for the location.

Although the council did not agree to the zone change this past winter, city leaders did express interest in preserving the Dow’s Woods parcel.

Fast forward to mid-September when White approached the council with a revised plan that includes 14 new, two-story condominium units, one existing home and the $140,000 conservation easement.

Under White’s current development plan, the condos would be clustered on a nearly 3-acre portion of the property closest to Highland Avenue, while the remaining 9 acres would be permanently protected.

In September one group of councilors, led by Councilor Claude Morgan, said the problem with White’s plan is that the city would not own the land outright and under the easement there would be restrictions on how the open space could be used, including a ban on dogs.

However, another group of councilors, led by incoming Mayor Tom Blake, saw the offer of a conservation easement as a rare opportunity to save what’s been described as a “pristine” piece of property in the heart of a highly developed area of the city.

The Dow’s Woods property contains a woodland pond and the headwaters for Kimball Brook and, according to City Manager Jim Gailey, it’s also “No. 6 on the city’s open space list and a very valuable piece of land that the city has looked at (preserving) for several years.”

During the discussion in September, Blake called the Dow’s Woods parcel a “really special place,” adding that the woodland pond in particular is “very unique and very sensitive” and that the whole area is just “teeming with wildlife.”

And Councilor Maxine Beecher called the conservation easement proposal “a heck of a deal. The people of this city have asked us numerous times to preserve these open places.”

Also during the council meeting earlier this fall, Barbara Dow-Nucci, the owner of the property, said the reason for the restriction on dogs and mountain bikes was due to the “extreme sensitivity” of the open space.

Dow-Nucci had also previously said that it’s been a dream of her family to preserve the area around the woodland pond for future generations to enjoy.

Going into Monday’s workshop, Morgan told the Current, “I am now satisfied that the city has performed its due diligence and I am prepared to move forward on the preservation of the property.”

He said not being able to walk dogs in Dow’s Woods was only one of his “many concerns,” but said a report put together by White, Dow-Nucci and the land trust “assigns tangible value to the land, both environmental and financial.”

Morgan said the conservation easement proposal is not “perfect” and neither is it “all that I hoped for. But, I am now leaning toward a release of the funds to contribute to the preservation of the property.”

Overall, he said, “I believe this pause has been important (because) it provides a solid template for releasing land bank funds in the future.”

In a memo sent to the council prior to Monday’s meeting, Gailey said that city staff recommends moving forward on the conservation easement, saying that if the city were to buy the 9-acre property outright it would cost $300,000.

In the report provided to the City Council, White argued that allowing dogs at Dow’s Woods would be in conflict with the mission statement of South Portland’s Open Space Strategic Plan.

That plan says, “the protection of open space is needed in order to preserve habitat for birds and other wildlife, preserve forests and native flora (and) preserve wetlands.”

In addition, the report called Dow’s Woods a “high value” parcel that provides habitat for shorebirds, songbirds and waterbirds like the American woodcock, the Canada Warbler, the American bittern and the little blue heron.

In her section of the report to the council, Dow-Nucci also reiterated that the purpose of the conservation easement is to create a nature preserve “for passive recreation, nature observation, education and research.”

She added that the conservation easement would also “be dedicated to the preservation of plants, animals and natural communities and be managed in a way that allows user access with the least amount of physical impact.”

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