Hacker’s Hill debt on Casco’s shoulders

 

Loon Echo Land Trust Executive Director Carrie Walia enjoys the view from Hacker’s Hill in mid-May while her two-month-old son, Grayden, rides along in a front pack. (Photo Courtesy of Carrie Walia)

Loon Echo Land Trust Executive Director Carrie Walia enjoys the view from Hacker’s Hill in mid-May while her two-month-old son, Grayden, rides along in a front pack. (Photo Courtesy of Carrie Walia)By Dawn De Busk

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — Two years ago, the Town of Casco was one of the first major donators to the land-conservation project to purchase for public access a 27-acre parcel on Hacker’s Hill. The mountain is located off Quaker Ridge Road in Casco. At that time, residents voted to put $75,000 toward the Hacker’s Hill Campaign, which was being handled by Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT).

On Wednesday during Casco Town Meeting, residents will decide whether or not to dedicate another $25,000.

According to the Warrant Article 17, that money would come from a fund already set aside for land preservation purchases.

LELT’s Executive Director Carrie Walia hopes that residents will continue their conservation-minded actions, and back the Hacker’s Hill purchase with another sum of money.

“Casco residents overwhelmingly supported contributing to the Hacker’s Hill project in 2011 when the campaign had just begun. Their gift fueled the start of the project; now we are at the tail end and need their support once more,” Walia said.

“I call this a community-inspired project since dozens of Casco families came to Loon Echo and asked us to save ‘the Hill’ from a private sale and eventual closure. Loon Echo had always wanted to see the land protected, but our board didn’t believe it had the means to do so until we saw the wave of public support in late 2009 through 2010,” she said.

Loon Echo, which serves as a steward of the multiuse public land, completed the purchase in July 2012 by taking out a one-year mortgage.

“The repayment on that mortgage is due in July,” Walia said.

“The town’s contribution would pay off the mortgage balance,” she said.

“Thankfully local families and businesses, most recently Hancock Lumber and Migis Lodge, have stepped up with generous contributions to pay down this debt,” she said.

“But the last bit is tough to find, so we’re really leaning on Casco to save the day,” Walia said.

That is one of the decisions that will be made at Town Meeting, which will be held Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Casco Fire Station.

Actually, Warrant Article 16 asks residents to first consider combining together two accounts: The Land Futures account, which has accrued interest, and the Open Space Preservation fund.

Then, approval of Warrant Article 17 would funnel $25,000 toward the debt owed from the purchase of the Hacker’s Hill parcel.

According to Dave Morton, the majority of the Casco Finance Committee was opposed to allocating the money. The finance committee’s vote, which was not to earmark the funding at this time, is recorded in the warrant article.

“The finance committee’s opposition was more that it wasn’t good time to be spending money. It was in opposition of the town spending more money, and the feeling was that the town had done its share,” Morton said.

“No one said that the purchase was not a good idea. No one was against spending money for that purpose,” he clarified.

“They just don’t think the town should be spending more money on the project,” Morton said.

He did not recall individual comments or opinions.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Casco Board of Selectmen “thought it was an important purchase, and a good way to spend money in the fund,” he said.

Neither the selectmen nor the finance committee members were unanimous in their decisions, he said.

“This is kind of sending missed signals going to the voters. But, they will have an opportunity to discuss it at town meeting,” he said.

Selectman Ray Grant sided with the finance committee majority — saying the town should not be relied upon to give more funding to the Hacker’s Hill project.

“We made the commitment that we promised, and I thought Loon Echo was going to fund-raise the rest,” Grant said.

He said the town has donated a total of $85,000, which includes the $75,000 approved at Town Meeting in 2011 and the $10,000 gifted by the Casco Fire Association, “which is still part of the town.”

“We did more than our share for that commitment,” he said.

Even though an additional monetary donation from the town will not affect the mill rate, Grant is financially cautious.

“I would rather see the money going to something else. If we spend it, we would have to put that money back in. It is not free money,” he said.

“Loon Echo promised they would get the rest of the money. That is what they should be doing,” Grant said.

“They should be honoring their own commitment, basically,” he said.

Walia knows the fundraising is not over — even if the Town of Casco assists in paying off the mortgage.

“Even after the mortgage is paid, we have a goal of raising additional funds to support a perpetual endowment to care for the property,” she said.

“Thankfully our management costs have been kept to a minimum in our first year of owning (Hacker’s Hill) thanks to Conrad Hall, the former owner, and his longtime volunteer caretaker, Don Fowler. They are still active in the day-to-day care including opening the gate and mowing the fields — something that is invaluable to a nonprofit organization like Loon Echo Land Trust,” Walia said.

“I invite anyone who is against this warrant article to spend an hour sitting on top of (the mountain) in quiet contemplation. It is the most freeing feeling to be there as the breeze brushes through the pine trees,” Walia said.

“It’s really the best view in all of Southern Maine,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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