Treasure protected: Loon Echo to buy Hacker’s Hill property

MAGNIFICENT TREASURE — The stunning 270-degree view from atop Hacker’s Hill, and it’s easy accessibility by car, are reasons the state places a high value on the property as a “turnkey state park,” said owner Jeff Hall.

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

CASCO — Hacker’s Hill, a panoramic picnic spot of unparalleled beauty, will be preserved from development under a long-anticipated deal announced Monday between its owners and the Loon Echo Land Trust.

“We’ve always hoped this day would come,” said LELT Executive Director Carrie Walia, in announcing the trust’s successful negotiation with owners Conrad and Jeff Hall to buy 27 acres of fields at the top of the hill on Quaker Ridge Road for $700,000. “Now that it has, we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

The deal, over a decade in the making, hinges on fundraising — but with a track record of raising $3 million to protect Pleasant Mountain, and knowing how treasured the hill has become over the years to so many people, LELT is confident of waging a successful capital campaign, which starts in July.

LELT also has high hopes it will win all or most of the $350,000 in grant funding it requested in April from the state’s Land For Maine’s Future Board for the purchase. Jeff Hall said state officials visited Hacker’s Hill last summer, and “they were really interested, because it’s one of the few sites in the state where it’s a turnkey state park,” meaning it is cleared, landscaped, gated, and accessible to the summit by a paved road.

The fundraising effort includes a request — unanimously backed by Casco’s Open Space Commission and Finance Committee — for $75,000 from the town’s taxpayers. The question was placed on the annual town meeting warrant by selectmen at Tuesday’s meeting, according to Open Space Commission Chairman Grant Plummer.

“It’s an amazing moment, it’s an amazing time, it’s an incredible opportunity,” Plummer said. As if he hadn’t made the point, he added, “We’re excited.” Plummer said locals became alarmed in November of 2009, when the Halls placed all 52 acres of the hill on the open market for an asking price of $1.25 million. There was considerable interest expressed, but no offers were made.

“This has been a topic of conversation ever since the For Sale sign went up,” said Plummer. “Flat out, the townspeople have just been waiting for someone to lead the charge” to preserve the property, he said. At 753 feet of elevation, the hill offers views of six water bodies — Sebago and Long Lake, and Brandy, Parker, Panther and Thomas Ponds.

LELT only recently completed fundraising for the Pleasant Mountain project, and is nearing completion of a transfer of ownership to Bridgton of Pondicherry Park, so now they have the time to devote to the effort to preserve Hacker’s Hill, Walia said.

One of the first hurdles for the project is to confirm the negotiated sales price through an appraisal, said Walia. As for the second hurdle, she said the trust’s board of directors “would really have to take a hard look” at continuing with the project, if the Land For Maine’s Future program did not award them any money.

The Trust is putting together a steering committee, and assuming the LMF grant award comes through at or close to the $350,000 requested, the capital campaign will begin in late July, according to Walia.

“I think it will have a lot of public support” from a lot of people, both locally and statewide, she said. “This (purchase price) is not going to come from just a handful of people. But we raised $1.8 million, and (in a later phase) $1.5 million, for Pleasant Mountain. That’s what has given us the confidence that, hey, we’ve done this before.”

Walia said LELT configured the boundary lines of the 27 acres to be purchased in order to “retain the most cherished pieces of the property,” including the mowed fields, picnic area and signature pine trees. Jeff Hall said there’s another six acres at the base of the hill (three potential house lots with road frontage worth nearly $300,000) that he and his father would be open to having LELT purchase in the future, but right now that’s not part of the deal.

The deal does, however, include two cell phone towers, which Walia said is a definite plus from a financial perspective. She said the Halls lease the towers, which house cell phone and local law enforcement antennae, and LELT will be taking over those leases. The income will help pay for the considerable maintenance that’s required to keep the hill mowed, litter-free and properly landscaped.

The maintenance responsibility was part of the reason the Halls decided to sell, said Jeff Hall. When the hill opens in May, it requires mowing twice a week. Hall said if it weren’t for the volunteer labor that’s been provided by Casco resident Donnie Fowler for the past decade, the family wouldn’t have been able to keep it open to the public.

“He really helped revitalize it. He showed up one day from out of state and asked if he could stay on the mountain for awhile. And it grew from there.” Fowler, who refers to himself as “the silent preacher,” holds Bible study classes on the hill on Sundays in the summer through his High Country Mission. He has done a lot of stonework and landscaping and created small structures. His efforts, and those of another neighbor, Bill Wales, have made the hill a popular destination for weddings and geo-caching from May to November. Summer camp staff often meets there for picnics to enjoy the nearly 360-degree view, which includes the White Mountains and on a clear day extends as far as Portland. On a good day there can be 15 to 20 cars parked on the hill, Hall said. Hacker Hall, Jeff’s grandfather, started mowing the hill in the late 1960s and built the road to the top. He allowed public access, but until Fowler came along, it was often a hangout for weekend beer drinkers who left litter and caused headaches for the Halls. “My grandfather was offered $1 million for the hill in 1973 by an out-of-stater,” Jeff Hall said.

He said no, but not just because the sale would close the land off from the public. “That, and he got a couple of hundred bales of hay out of it,” said Hall. Walia said LELT will close on the project and take fee ownership of the property if the funds are raised within one year. Jeff Hall said his grandfather isn’t the only one who has seen beyond the dollar signs when it comes to the value of keeping Hacker’s Hill accessible to the public. Realtor Cathy Manchester, who has the listing, is waiving her 7% commission fee under the option agreement with LELT.

The reason? “This is where she taught her daughter to walk,” he said.

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