Bug Light Park in South Portland on a March evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council’s recent rejection of a proposed conservation easement to protect Bug Light Park from development has upset local environmental groups and raised concern about the future of one of southern Maine’s most popular open spaces.

The controversy has pitted some councilors against members of the city’s Conservation Commission and the independent nonprofit South Portland Land Trust, which would have held the easement on the 12-acre park overlooking Portland Harbor, Casco Bay and the pint-size lighthouse.

While conservationists say the easement is the best way to prevent the park from ever being developed or sold, opponents say it’s unnecessary, short-sighted and possibly illegal.

“I’m heartbroken that after six years of work we would get to this point,” said Barbara Dee, commission chairwoman.

A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently protects the natural resources of a parcel of land by restricting its future use or development.

Dee and others say the current council’s rejection of the easement – just four years after a previous council approved an open space plan that calls for it – is exactly why the city should move to protect its most important public places.


They point to more than 2,000 similar easements across Maine and more than 50 that have been placed on municipal properties in Cumberland County, including Sawyer Marsh and Sawyer Park in South Portland. Granted to the land trust in 2015, the Sawyer Park easement stopped the city from selling a 2-acre field in Thornton Heights to a Dunkin’ Donuts operator.

“Who could have imagined that city officials would consider selling Sawyer Park, but they did,” said Alex Redfield, trust president.

Kites flying at Bug Light Park in South Portland are a sure sign of spring. Ben McCanna/Press Herald

“The idea of the easements is you don’t have to deal with political changes on the council,” Dee said.

But Councilor Natalie West, a retired municipal attorney and the strongest opponent, says the proposed easement should never have been developed and would have infringed on the council’s right to control the use of city-owned land in the future.

“The easement was not in the best interests of the community,” said West, who was elected in November. “It’s not even legal.”

Warren Whitney, program director at the Maine Land Trust Network, said that argument is entirely new.


“No one has ever suggested that it’s illegal,” Whitney said. “Conservation easements are legal agreements and a very solid way to protect open space.”

The council is set to discuss easement alternatives on May 9, likely triggering a review of the open space plan.

In February, the council voted 4-3 against the Bug Light Park easement, which was drafted by the city’s attorney, planning director and the land trust. Councilors Linda Cohen, Dick Matthews and Jocelyn Leighton also voted against; Misha Pride, Deqa Dhalac and Mayor Kate Lewis voted in favor.

While the trust would have held the easement, the city would have continued to own the former shipyard property, acquired in 1996 via a $996,000 bond issue approved by voters.

Councilors who opposed the easement questioned whether it was legal or wise to give up future control of the park, which is known for kite flying, picnicking, fireworks watching and being the northern terminus of the city’s Greenbelt Walkway and The Eastern Trail.

“Voters approved a bond issue for it to be a park. It’s never going to be anything other than a park,” West said.


But in 50 years, West said, the park could be flooded as a result of sea level rise and the City Council and residents need to be able to determine the best use or protection of that land.

The council’s unexpected rejection of the easement shocked and embarrassed commission members, Dee said. They helped to develop the open space plan that was adopted unanimously by the council in 2019 and established a tiered system of vetting city-owned land.

In addition to Bug Light Park, Tier 1 properties worthy of conservation easements include Mill Creek Park, Hinckley Park, Willard Beach, Fisherman’s Point, Clark’s Pond Trail and Trout Brook Nature Preserve. Tier 2 and 3 properties can be developed or sold after public review and council approval.

The council’s easement decision ignored thousands of volunteer and staff hours and tax dollars invested in the plan, Dee said. Moreover, the easement wouldn’t have transferred the park’s ownership to the trust. It only would have relinquished the city’s right to develop or sell the property, she said.

Given housing and development pressures in the city, Dee said, it’s conceivable that a developer could offer millions of dollars for part of Bug Light Park. She pointed to ongoing development right next door, where PK Realty Management is planning to build The Yard South, a 30-acre residential and commercial project.

David Packard, in-house counsel for PK Realty, said the company has no interest in buying any portion of the park, including a segment with a public boat ramp.

Mayor Lewis, who voted for the easement, said she hopes to review a variety of land conservation options at next week’s workshop and unite the council around one of them.

“I am interested in finding a solution that allows the city to have the most control and lasting protection of Bug Light Park as an open public space,” she said.

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