Community forest eyed for three towns
By Gail Geraghty
The largest remaining tract of undeveloped forestland in the Lake Region is under contract to Loon Echo Land Trust and would be given to the town of Denmark next June, under an ambitious $1.4 million land conservation plan rolled out to the Bridgton Board of Selectmen Tuesday.
“Can one town own property in another town? The answer is yes,” Denmark Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak told Bridgton selectmen. Paraschak was joined by LELT’s Executive Director Carrie Walia and Denmark Selectman Rick Mason in presenting the Perley Mills Community Forest plan to the board.
For several years, Denmark Selectmen and the Denmark Conservation Commission have been active supporters of the plan to purchase and manage the 1,666-plus acre forestland because the town has an “interest in owning a municipal forest for the benefit of the public,” Walia wrote in a letter to Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz. The land scored as a high priority for resource protection in the Lake Region, under the Greenprint mapping project completed over a year ago.
Bridgton Selectmen were asked to consider asking voters next June to commit $25,000 from the Moose Pond Trust Fund toward the purchase price, and perhaps to also become active partners in the plan. Denmark voters will also be asked to chip in $25,000. Walia said the land came close to being sold to a developer this fall before the trust and K&W reached agreement on a sale price of $1.3 million on Oct. 31. Most of the unbroken and contiguous tract has a long history of forest management dating back to its purchase by the S.D. Warren Co. in 1951. K&W bought the land in 2002, and prior to that, private landowners have permitted people to use it for public recreation.
The tract is unique in that it lies within three towns, Bridgton, Denmark and Sebago. Three miles of the former 16-mile Bridgton and Saco River Narrow Gauge Railroad run right through the center of the Bridgton and Denmark land. The popular trail serves as part of the state ITS 89 snowmobile and regional ATV network, and is locally well-known and used as a hiking and hunting trail. The developer, who backed out Oct. 1 from the land purchase, was planning to shut down the trail system, Walia said.
The land in Bridgton, called “The Jungle” on town tax records, includes around 576 acres of forest and wetlands and the headwaters of Willett Brook — the source of Bridgton’s public drinking water. Around 870 acres of the forest is in Denmark, including Willett Pond, a small wetland pond, and Pickerel Pond, where fishing, swimming and canoeing would be guaranteed and improvements made to the boat launch and parking area. Another 135 or so acres lie in the town of Sebago, at the parcel’s southern end. The land would be open to the general public for recreational use, regardless of what town a person lives in.
All of the land would remain taxable property, Walia said, in response to a question by resident Steve Stevens. She said the property has been heavily logged off in recent years, so it won’t have any value for logging for another 15 years or so.
“We don’t want to make it seem like we were just trying to gobble up land in Bridgton,” Paraschak said, and both he, Mason and Walia said they would welcome Bridgton’s active involvement in the project, perhaps by having representation on a citizen-based policy board in charge of managing the conservation easement that will be a condition for transferring the land to the town of Denmark. “We’re definitely interested in involving Bridgton in any way we can,” Paraschak said.
But, another resident, Greg Watkins, asked, “If Bridgton gives $25,000, what are they getting that they wouldn’t have gotten if they didn’t participate?” To that, Walia said the money would help LELT meet its fundraising goal, which is counting on a combination of grant funds and individual donations.
“There’s no certainty that we will meet the goal,” said Walia. LELT has set its sights on raising $75,000 in individual donations, along with around $500,000 in local, state and federal grants. A total of $847,500 in funding has been secured so far, with $687,500 being provided by an anonymous foundation and $160,000 from an Open Space Institute grant.
Walia pointed out that LELT pays taxes on over 3,000 acres of Lake Region land held in trust, including many acres in Bridgton, at Pleasant Mountain and elsewhere.
Selectman Woody Woodward said restrictions on what uses can be made for Moose Pond Trust Fund money might prevent Bridgton from being able to use that source of funds for its $25,000 contribution. Walia said LELT would take fee ownership of all of the land on or before Dec. 31, 2013, when the purchase agreement with K&W Timberlands expires. LELT may retain ownership of a portion of the property, while a majority of the land would be transferred to Denmark with a conservation easement in place, pending voter approval.