Casco Open Space Commission refines mission

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — The people on Casco’s Open Space Commission have walked many miles of town-owned land.

In fact, in early October, the commission trekked the trails on a 51-acre parcel off State Park Road that was recently part of a timber harvest.

Now, the group is taking a step back to breathe fresh air into its mission and what that entails.

The Open Space Commission came before the Casco Board of Selectmen on Nov. 13 to highlight what had been done and to discuss what the future holds.

One question brought before the selectmen is: What group should maintain or monitor the tracts of land currently in preservation?

Commission member Eric Dibner gave a presentation to the board.

“We feel the retaining open space is important to the town. That is what the ordinance says,” he said.

“As to what the town consists of now, it is a wonderful environment,” Dibner said. “The town is a nice outdoorsy place that people would want to come to.”

“The Open Space Commission is trying to preserve the habitats and the scenery that we can preserve in the unbuilt areas of towns,” he said.

That can be accomplished with zoning and also with educating landowners, he said.

“We sent a letter out to all the taxpayers in town to consider protecting their lands, understanding that conservation is important. A number of landowners came forward,” Dibner said.

“In 2018, we came up with two properties to be purchased at town meeting. That was a close call, it was a tie,” but the land purchase was voted down, he said.

“We wish to look at additional ways [to preserve land] other than an outright purchase,” he said.

“The mission is to preserve open space for public access, appropriate use and natural resource values for all beings, including future generations,” he said. “Not just people but the beings on the land, which are the natural resources that Casco has.”

“At this time, the Open Space Commission is going back to the focus areas. There are four primary focus areas. We have inventories of where the large properties are,” Dibner said.

“The best bet is to work with property-owners,” he said. “We don’t have the authority to take lands or do things on the whim. We have to do a thorough planning process.”

“We look to you [the board of selectmen] to make our approaches as successful as possible,” he said.

The other topics Dibner touched upon are “management and budget.”

He referred to “Berry Park,” the land surrounding the town hall and fire station property. The acreage was purchased at Town Meeting 2016. The Open Space Commission was not responsible for the negotiating process and sale of the land called Berry Park. However, the commission allocated funds to offset the price.

Dibner said there are opportunities to educate people about the town-owned land, the two large properties in South Casco and Berry Park, and how it can be used. It may also be possible to create trails so the acreage is easier for people to traverse, he said.

“We don’t know that the Open Space Commission should be managing these lands. We have management plans for the lands,” Dibner said. “It isn’t really clear who is responsible for lands. Is it the recreation department?”

“It is up to the five of you, the town manager and the five of us to think hard on how to meet our goals without hundreds of volunteers,” he said.

Recapping his presentation he said the goals of the commission are: finding “alternative ways to protect property without high acquisition costs and ways to manage the land that town owns.”

“Acquisitions are one way to go. It would be a lot more prudent to get people to protect their property in other ways,” he said.

Chairman Holly Hancock asked what the management plans look like.

Dibner said that a forester provided a management plan for the 70-acre and 50-acre parcels in South Casco.

“The forestry management plans include things like this needs to be protected. They don’t say build trails or don’t build trails,” he said.

However, “the timber harvest opened up the lands. It thinned out the forest to allow a multi-age stand to grow up. Until then, most of the trees were older.”

“It created openings in the woods that could be opened into trails,” Dibner said.

Casco Town Manager Dave Morton spoke about land management.

“We currently don’t have someone who walks the marker boundaries to make sure there aren’t encroachments on the property,” Morton said.

The commission was created several years after the town’s comprehensive plan was completed. As part of the 2002 comprehensive plan process, one of the recurring concerns of residents was the protection of rural land.

So, prior to 2009, an ordinance was passed to preserve rural lands and natural habitats. Essentially, the Open Space Commission came into existence in 2009.

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