Casco taxpayers: Open space at what cost?

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — It was like a trip through the wilderness, with twists and turns and talk of critters.

So went the testimony about dedicating money from an Open Space Acquisition Account to help with the purchase of Hacker’s Hill for continued public access.

Similar to so many close calls that might occur during an outdoors adventure, narrow was the margin for the vote on warrant Article 17.

There was a recount for this warrant article during the Casco Town Meeting on June 12. The final vote was 50-31 to allocate $25,000 so that Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) could pay off the one-year mortgage for the purchase of Hacker’s Hill.

Many residents offered passionate praise for ensuring the purchase of this 27-acre tract located off Quaker Ridge in Casco.

Community member Nadia Hermos said the mountain was a place that she enjoyed as much during solo trips as when acquaintances arrived in Casco.

“Every time I have friends visit, I take them to Hacker’s Hill. We see how glaciers have cut the rock and we identify the geological layers. It’s educational. So, maybe you don’t care about that,” she said. “It is the most peaceful spot. Whenever I get in a snit, I go to Hacker’s Hill. Then, I always feel much better.”

Some citizens said they loved the public parcel and had donated personal funds to the land-purchase campaign; however, they were unwilling to put any more tax dollars in that direction. Two years ago, the town allocated $75,000 toward Hacker’s Hill from the land acquisition fund.

A few community members spoke fervently, expressing the belief that it was better to maintain private ownership of large tracts of land, because potential taxes would not be lost.

When Doug Heuiser pleaded with Casco community members not to donate money to Hacker’s Hill, his words created quite a stir.

“I agree with you that Hacker’s Hill is a beautiful spot,” he began.

He pointed out that “Loon Echo controls” 4,000 acres in the Lake Region and western Maine.

“How much land do we need for Bambi and Bull Winkle?” he said.

Resident Sam Brown interjected, saying the comment was out of line.

Casco Board of Selectman Tracy Kimball asked what Heuiser meant by his reference to the two fictitious moose.

“My kids need that land dedicated to Bambi and Bull Winkle,” Kimball later said.

Spontaneous applause followed her statement.

Resident Elaine Heuiser spoke against not only the purchase of Hacker’s Hill, but also against the entire concept of land conversation for public access.

She referred to a Casco open space committee document, in which “7,700 acres have been targeted for acquisition.”

“Open space seeks to acquire private, taxed property. I was told open space isn’t going to be drain on our community,” Heuiser said. “It is land that won’t be taxed. We cannot afford to have any more private land,” owned by conservation groups, she said.

When the private landowner is no longer paying taxes, “It gets more expensive to live here. People cannot afford to pay their taxes; people move out of town, and there are fewer jobs. I think that open space should be shut down. It is taking private property out of people’s hands forever,” Heuiser said, stressing the word ‘forever.’

“The continued growth of open space for the community is a recipe for shutting down this town’s economy. I refuse to give any money to open space,” Heuiser concluded.

According to resident Connie Cross, LELT does pay property taxes in some towns like Bridgton, while it donates money to Casco in lieu of tax payments.

Earlier, when the article was on the floor, Cross spoke in favor of the purchase, first revealing that she had served on LELT’s board of directors.

She said Hacker’s Hill has always attracted people because of its spectacular views.

Also, this particular piece of property has been on Loon Echo’s preservation list since the nonprofit agency began, she said.

“It only took 25 years,” she said. “We are so close. We have worked hard to get where we are. I hope people will help with this,” she said, adding that it benefits the community because traditional uses and the regular hours that the gate is opened have been maintained.

She added, “Without Casco’s donation, the chances are we would have never been able to come this far. We are thankful to Casco for jumpstarting this campaign. We are within $30,000 of our goal, and we will need to fundraise for the (maintenance) endowment.”

Many people expressed a desire to assist with the mortgage pay-off, and cited one of the reasons as the fact that Hacker’s Hill is located in their hometown of Casco. Therefore, its residents often benefit the most, or at least have more opportunities to frequent the mountain.

Resident Peg Dilley approached the microphone a few times, speaking in favor of the monetary donation.

“When we decided to buy the property, we wanted to make sure it could be used for all the things it could be used for, use it as we have been using it. Other towns don’t use it as much as we do,” Dilley said.

A LELT Board of Directors member, Eric Dibner said, “The point that Peg made is important. The question that was raised was: What control does the town have? There is the idea that the owner of property (Loon Echo) has a full reign.”

“The town in its wisdom decided it wanted to nail (LELT) down, and took the list of current uses, and signed an agreement that we will maintain those uses, and any changes we entered into would go before the board of selectmen,” he said. “There are many activities that we cultivate and encourage. Hacker’s Hill is for our future, for the animals, and for our kids. I hope you support the additional funding.”

Selectman Ray Grant publicly stated his opposition to Article 17.

“We have already done it. The townspeople have donated $85,000. We have fulfilled our obligation. I am surprised they (Loon Echo) asked for more money. It’s been purchased,” Grant said, proposing LELT finish the fund-raising efforts.

Hermos spoke again, “We have a fund exactly for this purpose. This is the time to spend some of that fund. It is right here in Casco. And, who is going to get the most use? For Loon Echo, it isn’t fun doing fundraising these days. Anyone who has a mailbox knows that everyone is asking for money.”

Another resident Peter Troy spoke in favor of earmarking the money for Hacker’s Hill.

“It may be that Casco has fulfilled that pledge. There is no reason we shouldn’t go above and beyond,” he said. “Is there another place in Casco we should save our money for instead.”

Prior to the passage of Article 17, residents voted in favor of Article 16, which combined the money from a Land For Maine’s Future (LFMF) fund with the Open Space Acquisition Account.

According to Town Manager Dave Morton, the LFMF Account was created 15 years ago in response to a program offered by the nonprofit, which is involved in land acquisition for public space. The money in that account was specifically allocated to match grant funding from LFMF.

“Going forward in the future, the town created a fund so property owners could sell their land to the town for open space,” Morton said.

Over time, the LFMF fund had not been used, he said.

“It only made sense to use the money that was already there; and, town meeting was the body to transfer that,” Morton said.

To see the Casco Town Meeting in its entirety, check out the home page for www.cascomaine.org and scroll down to Lake Region Television.  

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