On the clock: Raising funds to buy the Hill

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD? — Loon Echo Land Trust and Casco residents are embarking on the fundraising campaign to purchase the 27-acre tract this spring — as displayed on this sign at the beginning of a trail to Hacker’s Hill. (De Busk photo)

CASCO – Like so many residents here, Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) employees understand that Hacker’s Hill is a property worthy of being preserved — an objective identified when the nonprofit was formed 25 years ago.

For centuries, humans have valued the elevated land that affords views of the White Mountains and renown lakes

Everyone agrees that Hacker’s Hill is a space by virtue of its natural beauty should have public access preserved — and the testimonies are many.

During an informational meeting at the Casco Community Center on Tuesday night, LELT and about 20 town residents brainstormed fundraising plans to garner by May the remaining money to purchase the 27-acre, privately-owned parcel.

With an impending spring deadline, the Hacker’s Hill Campaign is picking up speed, and organizers are confident the remaining money can be secured for a total sum of $800,000 to purchase and create an endowment for the land, according to LELT Executive Director Carrie Walia.

Last week, word came from the State Attorney General’s Office that all religious structures must be removed from Hacker’s Hill, because of laws separating church and state, she said.

The news was such a recent development that some community members were still dealing with their initial responses to the state mandate.

“I am trying to break the news in a sensitive way,” Walia said.

“The bottom line: This is about land conservation for the entire community,” she said.

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What: Hacker’s Hill Campaign to raise remaining funds to purchase 27- acre parcel, and set aside maintenance endowment.

How to volunteer: Call Loon Echo, 647-4352.

How to donate: For online donations, go to www. lelt.org. Donation forms available at Hacker’s Hill entrance, off Quaker Ridge Road

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For 40 minutes after the meeting ended, residents continued to stand in circles and converse — and sometimes, argue, about removing the religious icons.

Those “religious structures” include a lightning-struck pine shaped like a cross, a statue of Jesus carved with a chainsaw and church-affiliated sign at the foot of the paved pathway up Hacker’s Hill.

“People have made it their sanctuary. I am concerned it wouldn’t be the same if it was abolished,” said Don Fowler, Hacker’s Hill caretaker since 1994 and a certified missionary.

“Something bigger than us transpired when God came down and made a cross out a tree. To remove it, would be to remove God Himself,” he said.

During the meeting, Fowler advocated turning down the state money, and relying on the community to pool together funds – allowing the structures he values to stay put.

Walia said since the majority consensus is to keep Hacker’s Hill open to the public, the best move is to accept the government money and adhere to the “rules” of removing religious icons. Without government funding, the Hacker’s Hill Campaign will have a much bigger chunk of money to fundraise, which might result in the public losing out on the land deal, she said.

Many echoed their concern about the land being snagged by a private citizen preferring to keep Hacker’s Hill private.

“The property is for sale, and if it’s purchased by a private landowner, they’d probably put a gate up and nobody could go there,” Casco resident Sam Brown said.

“In taking the public dollars, it’s part of the sacrifice. People will be keeping the spiritual inside of them, instead of in structures,” Brown said.

Resident Pam Edwards said she voted at Town Meeting to use $75,000 toward the land-purchase — a move she wouldn’t have made if she thought public dollars were being used to support a specific religion.

“I believe in separation of church and state. I don’t want to favor any one religion over another. I want the Hacker’s Hill experience to be all-inclusive for all religions, and all beliefs,” Edwards said.

Grant Plummer, chairman of the Casco Open Space Commission, said removing the structures does not take God or religion away from anyone, and people can continue to have personal, spiritual experiences on the 753-foot hill.

Resident Peg Dilley attested to the religious experience that is grounded in the land rather than the structures. As a business-owner and citizen, she supported public access to Hacker’s Hill.

Through her pet grooming business, Dilley comes in contact with out-of-towners looking for a day outing.

“I say, ‘Go to the Village, grab some food at A&G, and take a trip to Hacker’s Hill,’ ” she said.

“I think our forefathers sat on the hill, just like we sit on the hill,” she said. She added she embraced some of the Native American theories in her belief system.

“It gives us back the community that was once was to the community that will be, and everyone has a chance to be part of our grandfathers’ ghosts,” Dilley said.

Brown agreed with the spirituality of the terrain, “The first time I drove on Quaker Hill. The aspect of looking east to the White Mountains is unbelievable. Whether or not you believe in Native American beliefs or Christianity or another religion, it’s there.”

Later, Brown rattled off a list of activities that could take place on the hill: bird watching, painting, picnics, birthday parties, lunches, flying a kite, geology studies and weddings.

Someone suggest people who were married on Hacker’s Hill might make potential donors.

Brown thought it would be a good idea to put up in the Village and by the fire station some roadside signs displaying how much money has been pledged, and the amount left to achieve the goal.

Volunteers with the Hacker’s Hill Campaign will have an eye on the goal of $445,000, according the Walia.

The property was appraised at $700,000, and the land trust cannot pay more than its market value, she said.

Additional funding ($100,000) is required to set up an endowment to maintain the land — which includes five hours a week to mow the lawn during the summer months.

So far, $335,000 has been pledged toward the land buyout, Walia said.

“The Town of Casco was the first to make a big contribution, and that is a statement of support,” she said, referring to the $75,000 that was allocated from a conservation fund toward the Hacker’s Hill project.

“The whole reason we started this is because of you, the community, urged us to get started,” she said.

“The landscape you see from Hacker’s Hill defines the region. We live in a heavily forested region with the Hancock Lumber mill working down below and a spread of bodies of water and mountains,” Walia said.

“We want to preserve the access to the hill for everyone,” she said.

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