Casco residents dive into Hacker’s Hill discussions

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

CASCO — The next step in the Hacker’s Hill land-acquisition process will be to form a committee of area residents to assist with fundraising activities and documentation of recreational uses at the site.

“Hopefully, the formation of Friends of Hacker’s Hill comes sooner than later,” said Grant Plummer, a Casco resident who sits on the nine-member Hacker’s Hill Steering Committee. “That will be a helpful piece for getting people involved.”

Another step forward will be learning about the various user-groups, such as the Crooked River Snowmobile Club that maintains wintertime trails on the 753-foot hill, which grants people spectacular views of several lakes and the White Mountains.

However, as it stands from the most recent correspondence from the state, once the tract is purchased to preserve the public access — “regular religious activities” will no longer be permitted, according to Plummer.

“It’s going to take some work and some understanding for community members to accept that religious artifacts will have to be removed,” Plummer said, adding it would be helpful to get written documentation from the state about what items need to be taken down, and how often religious activities could take place.

Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) is still working on getting the definitive answers about what kinds of uses can take place on Hacker’s Hill, and it would be best to put those in writing so everyone is on the same page, he said.

“The public access stuff Loon Echo has a handle on,” Plummer said. “Next, it’s going to take a whole lot of volunteer work.”

LELT Executive Director Carrie Walia recently addressed the Casco Board of Selectmen about the fundraising campaign to purchase 27 acres of privately owned land for $800,000.

LELT will act as the conduit for the purchase and preservation of Hacker’s Hill. One of the primary goals is to provide “continued public accessibility” to the site off Quaker Ridge Road, she said.

Two prongs to the “traditional use” question are tied to a state law and a state statute: Religious artifacts must be removed as a condition of accepting the money from Lands for Maine Future, thus keeping state and church separate, she said. Also, the recreational uses on Hacker’s Hill would include hunting and trapping, which by law is required to be permitted on parcels purchased with LMF’s funding assistance, she stated.

Most recent correspondence between LELT and LMF indicates that LMF is going to adhere to its mandate that no religious group will get preference or be represented on land that is purchased with public dollars, Walia said.

At the recent meeting, Selectman Ray Grant said he (as well as other Casco residents) would not have voted at town meeting to support spending $75,000 from the town’s Land Acquisition Fund if it had been public knowledge that some traditional uses could not be continued.

“No one saw this coming,” he said.

Grant suggested the matter go back to town meeting for another vote.

Plummer said he doubted the majority consensus would be to put the article before a town meeting vote again.

Walia said the town meeting article stated the money would go toward the purchase of the tract with the foremost goal of keeping it open to the public.

Also, LMF’s large donation ($225,000) is vital to the fundraising budget, she said.

With a deadline of purchasing the land by next summer, LELT is approaching the fundraising of the remaining $420,000 at full throttle.

“We are still in the midst of the capital campaign, securing the money,” Walia said.

Since the campaign started, $380,000 has been raised, leaving another $420,000 to be raised by June 2012, she said. The breakdown is: $225,000 from LMF, $75,000 approved at town meeting in June, and $90,000 from the general public and businesses.

Plummer said once the Friends of Hacker’s Hill group is created, it can address the fundraising blitz to obtain most of the money from the private sector.

“You normally don’t reach out to public until there is a comfort level of 80 percent of money in hand or pledged,” he said.

Pledges are just as good as cash donations, Walia said.

The conversation turned from getting the money to purchase the land to having enough money set aside for maintenance based on income from the communication relay towers on Hacker’s Hill.

Walia said LELT would not have pursued this land purchase if maintenance wasn’t viable, but the budget would be lean and rely on volunteerism. Although she had some estimates for costs to mow and repair mowing equipment, a land-care budget had not been finalized.

“There is a considerable amount of homework that needs to be done for the maintenance budget,” Plummer said. “For someone to get their minds around it, it might take a year or two of maintaining it.”

Plummer added that some volunteer help will be needed. Walia agreed.

“We have a vision of forming the Friends of Hacker’s Hill to take care of public education and day-to-day management,” she said, adding LMF is not interested in micro-managing the property. “Clearly, we are going to rely on the public to do this.”

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