An aerial rendering of the “Piggery” in South Portland. Courtesy image

The South Portland City Council wants to put a proposal for a $4.5 million land bank bond on the November ballot.

The council gave unanimous preliminary approval to the plan July 13, and will hold a public hearing on the proposal July 27, followed by a final vote, according to  Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny. If final approval is given, the referendum question will go to city voters.

“Ultimately, this all hinges on what the voters vote to do,” Reny said.

The $4.5 million would be used to bolster the city’s land bank, which is used to purchase and protect open space. The proposed bond comes from a recommendation by a committee formed as part of the city’s 2021 Open Space Plan, according to Richard Rottkov, president of the South Portland Land Trust.

The city protects land by easements or through the Maine Land and Water Conservation Fund, essentially buying and marking land for protection from development using local or state funding. According to the city’s comprehensive plan, plan, it protects 115 acres, or 1.5% of the city’s total land area, in this way.

“We’re always looking to increase the percentage of open space,” Rottkov said this week.

The limits of the current land bank became apparent in December 2020, when the council wanted to buy six acres at 115 Summit Terrace, known locally as the “Piggery property,” for $1.5 million, to protect just over four acres of it. The purchase is part of a deal with a developer to sell the rest of it for $900,000, but initially the city bought the entire parcel.

With only $500,000 in the bank, the council moved to buy the property anyway, getting the remaining $1 million from the city’s general fund, despite warnings from then-Finance Director Gregory L’Heureux that an upcoming revaluation this year would put a burden on the city to tighten its belt.

This week, Mayor Misha Pride, who voted for the purchase in 2020, defended the move as necessary to preserve another piece of open space in the city.

“I think that what we did was the most feasible thing that we could do,” he said.

Pride noted that the bond, if approved by voters, will go toward paying back some of the city’s investment in that property. He also noted that protecting open space is a critical part of the city’s comprehensive plan.

“It’s a goal for our city,” he said. “It has been for a long time.”

Pride acknowledged, however, that residents now holding their breath to see how much their tax bills are going up as a result of a citywide revaluation may not be inclined to support $4.5 million of new spending, even if it is for open space. Pride said he wants to hear from voters instead of just putting the $4.5 million into the budget as a line item.

“That’s why we’re putting it out to residents,” he said.

Rottkov also acknowledged that from a financial perspective, “the timing isn’t great” to ask voters to support a bond of this size, but he said he knows of no land bank-related bond referendum question anywhere in the state that has ever failed. He said he believes the bond will only cost taxpayers pennies on the dollar, if approved.

“We think this is puny, tiny, compared with the goal of land preservation,” he said.

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