SOUTH PORTLAND — In a 5-0 vote on Dec. 22, the city council approved the $1.5 million purchase of “the piggery” property, addressing the need to preserve green space despite financial risk.

The six-acre property, sitting in between Sawyer Street and the Willard Square neighborhood, off of Broadway, is one of the largest undeveloped parcels in South Portland, said a 2019 Press Herald article by Kelley Bouchard.

A developer, Dan White of HW Fine Homes in Portland, is willing to work with the city in preserving part of the land, Morelli said. White needs to seek planning board approval for his development project, which is not expected to happen until late summer 2021, and then purchase a portion of the property back from the city.

Seller Quirino Lucarelli and White had a purchase agreement with a deadline of Dec. 23, Morelli said. White told the city that he would not be able to finance the purchase until he received planning board approval.

“It’s a convoluted, funky kind of process,” he said. “Dan purchases it. We purchase it from him. He purchases a portion back from us.”

White is proposing a development project for 2.7 acres of the property, an area barren of trees, Morelli said. The other 4.1 acres would be protected as open space.

The city will finance the purchase through its undesignated fund balance, a little over $1 million, and the city’s land bank, about $500,000, he said.

A rendering of the South Portland piggery. Courtesy image

According to the city’s Dec 22 meeting materials, the land bank has $600,000 available, but $100,000 has been committed to another project.

“Financial policy requires we maintain 9 percent to 12 percent of its annual budget in undesignated fund balance, and we’re already dipping more than normal because of COVID,” he said. “Dipping into this brings us closer to 9 percent.”

The purchase poses a risk in Finance Director Greg L’Heureux’s opinion, he said.

“The biggest risk in my mind is this is a developer that we’ve not fully vetted in the regards to his ability to proceed and complete this project,” he said.

If White is unable to purchase the property from the city, selling the land to another buyer may take time, L’Heureux said.

Planning Director Milan Nevajda said that preventing another buyer from fully developing the land will benefit the surrounding neighborhood. Open space and trail access would fit well with the city’s comprehensive plan.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the neighborhood would certainly feel and likely be better off with this outcome as we’re trying to strike it with the developer Dan,” he said. “All things considered, this is a win on all sides. However, the terms of engagement here are far from what I’d like to have seen, and I think the risks are considerable.”

Members of the public who spoke during the meeting were all in favor of the purchase, including Dan Hogan of E Street, who acknowledged the imposed risk.

“Total depletion of the land fund gives me pause, but this is the type of acquisition I believe the land bank was designed for,” he said.

The preservation of the land will benefit the whole city, said resident Marty Zhangi: “… Every single entity wins in this, the seller, the buyer, builder, the homeowners, and the neighbors — not just the neighbors, but the whole city of South Portland who will have great green space for future use.”

Mayor Misha Pride acknowledged the community support, saying that a majority of feedback the council has seen has been in favor of the purchase.

Preserving as much of the land as possible is “incredibly important,” said Councilor Jocelyn Leighton.

“It is a financial risk,” she said. “I think the other risks if we don’t do this are, in essence, bigger.”

Councilor Kate Lewis is aware that the public is worried about tax increases this year, she said.

“I don’t want to pass this up and be shortsighted in what I know is a very difficult year, but I feel like this is a thing that the community needs, more open space,” she said.

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