The Falmouth Land Trust is asking the town for help in buying the 52-acre Underwood Springs Forest at the corner of Johnson Road and U.S. Route 1. One of the key features of the property is the spring-fed Norton Brook. File

FALMOUTH — In advocating for “a special opportunity” to buy land with “significant ecological value,” the president of the Falmouth Land Trust asked the council for $300,000 to help buy a parcel of undeveloped forest at the corner of U.S. Route 1 and Johnson Road.

In making the case for town funding on Monday, Michael Vance said it would be a one-time investment with enduring benefits and the land trust would be responsible for all management and operational costs.

Councilors agreed the 52-acre property, which the land trust is calling Underwood Springs Forest, is unique and the town would likely regret not preserving it in years to come. However, they also said serious budget pressures must be considered, including a proposal to spend $1.3 million for more full-time firefighters.

In the end, councilors said they could support giving the land trust up to $200,000 from the open space acquisition fund. A final vote is expected Monday, March 23, when the land trust will also update the council on its fundraising efforts.

The allocation supported by the council would leave some funds for other purchases, including buying about 77 acres off Falmouth Road that are slated for 30 single-family homes. Town Manager Nathan Poore is recommending $100,000 be added to the open space fund in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget, which would leave about $124,000 in the fund.

In its initial presentation Feb. 3, the trust asked the town for $400,000, but since then it has raised more than half of the $830,000 asking price, Vance said this week.

Jenny Grimm, executive director of the land trust, previously told the council her organization has entered into a purchase and sales agreement for the property, which expires March 31, although she’s hopeful the seller, Don Hincks, who lives out of state, will give the trust more time to raise funds if necessary.

Councilor Caleb Hemphill said members rated the property “very highly in terms of its conservation value” during a recent site walk by the town’s Land Management & Acquisitions Committee. While there’s been no vote yet, the land committee was expected to meet Tuesday, after The Forecaster’s deadline.

The majority of those who spoke at Monday’s public hearing were in favor of the land purchase; however, a handful of residents urged the council to exercise caution in spending taxpayer money on a project they said is not absolutely necessary.

In addition, resident Valentine Sheldon argued the town should not help buy the land until it’s seen the appraisal and can confirm “it’s the bargain we’ve been told it is. We need to know what we’re buying with taxpayer money. Otherwise, we’re being reckless.”

However, councilors pushed back.

Councilor Hope Cahan said the property could play a critical role in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“It’s no longer a question of if there will be climate change, but only how extreme it will be,” she said.

Councilor Jay Trickett called preserving the forest a “high priority” and said it’s the “best open space opportunity we’ve been presented since I’ve been on the council.”

Vance and other speakers said keeping the parcel from being developed would better protect water quality in Mill Creek, which empties into Casco Bay, and also said the forest is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including the variable sedge plant, which is endangered in Maine.

Resident Joshua Royte, who is also the senior conservation scientist at the Nature Conservancy in Maine, said Monday that Underwood Springs Forest “harbors an extraordinary habitat,” adding that the chance to purchase the property represents a “rare opportunity to protect a rare piece of land.”

Resident Dudley Warner agreed, saying, “an opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often. This is an investment that will endure over time. I know there are a lot of things to weigh, but in the long term this purchase is very prudent.”

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