On Feb. 7, the South Portland City Council ignored the thousands of volunteer and staff hours and the thousands of city dollars spent to develop the 2019 Open Space Plan, which protects valuable parks and open spaces in perpetuity. This six-year effort was marginalized by the council’s denial of a conservation easement on Bug Light Park.

Bug Light looms in the background as pedestrians walk the perimeter of Bug Light Park, one of 41 South Portland parks and open spaces deemed in critical need of permanent protection as public spaces. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer, File

The councilors who opposed the easement revealed a harrowing lack of knowledge about the definition and value of an easement, and it was sadly apparent that the easement had not been thoroughly reviewed by all councilors. The South Portland Conservation Committee is responsible for ensuring the complete implementation of the Open Space Plan, and this negative decision broke our collective hearts. After six years of preparation, we never imagined that the council would not protect our parks.

The heart of the Open Space Plan was the identification of 41 parks and open spaces designated as Tier 1 (extremely valuable) and in critical need of a conservation easement for infinite protection as public spaces. Under the Maine statute governing conservation easements (Title 33 MRS, Section 476), an easement prevents the property owner, the city of South Portland, from selling the property and designates a nongovernmental entity, the South Portland Land Trust, as the holder of the easement.

Conservation easements are common in Maine; it is not illegal for a municipality to give an easement to a third-party holder despite the assertions of the dissenting councilors. The land with its rights and requirements still belongs to the city; the easement holder has no right to decide what happens to or in the park. The city is not giving away the land to a third party; it has only relinquished its right to sell the property because it is convinced the property should never be sold. There is no safe alternative to a conservation easement as demonstrated by the actions of this council.

The Open Space Plan was approved unanimously by the City Council in August 2019 and incorporated into the South Portland Comprehensive Plan in October 2019. The 2023 City Council disregarded the decision of the 2019 City Council; overruled that unanimous decision to designate city parks as Tier 1 properties protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement, and guaranteed the possibility that Bug Light, Millcreek, Hinckley Park and other cherished locations could be sold and developed.

The council’s reasons for denying the easement validate why a conservation easement is essential. To repeatedly state that Bug Light should never be sold; should always be protected, and to then deny access to that protection is illogical. The park is not being “given away” to a third party. Despite the councilors’ protestations of affection and reverence for Bug Light Park, their refusal to do the right thing to protect it contradicts and cheapens those avowals.

Given the pressures of affordable housing and the city’s relentless emphasis on development, it is conceivable that a developer could offer the city millions of dollars for part of Bug Light Park while promising to reserve minimal open space. A councilor mentioned that the city has checks and balances to prevent the sale of an unprotected park, such as zoning, recall and elections. Those remedies take time; an easement is preventative. Relying on the city to protect our precious parks after this spectacle of lack of foresight is why we need conservation easements to truly protect our parks from unfettered development.

Bug Light Park and our other parks are in danger, and that threat must be addressed by conservation easements. The South Portland Conservation Commission urgently requests that the City Council readdress this issue in the near future before Bug Light or Millcreek or Willard Beach are lost forever.

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