What park ownership will/won’t mean

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

PONDICHERRY PARK has been a popular hiking area, as well as a natural classroom for children. Here, youngsters examine scratchings a bear has left on a tree as part of the Lakes Environmental Association's Discovery Program.

When voters in Bridgton go to the polls this Tuesday, Nov. 8, to decide whether to authorize the selectmen to accept ownership of the 66-acre Pondicherry Park as a gift from Loon Echo Land Trust, Inc., those who have worked hard on the project over the last six years want to make sure the public is armed with facts and not misinformation.

Officials from Loon Echo Land Trust, the non-profit land conservation organization which currently owns Pondicherry Park, and Lakes Environmental Association, a partner in the six-year-long endeavor, said they want to ensure that all concerns and questions are addressed, so that voters will be fully informed prior to entering the voting booths and casting their ballots.

Oct. 11 public hearing

At a Bridgton Board of Selectmen’s meeting Oct. 11, where a public hearing was held on the proposed turnover of the Pondicherry Park to the town, it was stated that should voters approve accepting Pondicherry Park this fall, the selectmen would take as much time as is necessary over the winter and spring months to hold workshops on the wording and terms of acceptance regarding the proposed conservation easement, with a deadline of June 30, 2012. Public input would be welcomed at all of the workshops, they said.

Asked at that time why the vote could not wait until the June 2012 annual town meeting, Chairman Arthur Triglione Sr. said, “I think they’ve put a lot of work and effort in to it and I feel we should bring it to voters and get a vote on it.”

Selectman Woody Woodward said Oct. 11, “I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who say, ‘Yes, we really want it — do what you can to get it done.’”

“I guess what it comes down to is, if people really want Pondicherry Park, will they trust their public officials (the selectmen) to do the work on the final details,” Woodward said then.

[stextbox id="info" float="true" width="200"]ARTICLE 2 — Shall the Board of Selectmen be authorized to accept on behalf of the Town a gift from the Loon Echo Land Trust, Inc. (“LELT”) of approximately 66 acres of land located westerly of Stevens Brook in Bridgton, known as the Pondicherry Park properties, subject to prior approval by the Board of Selectmen with advice of counsel, of 1) the terms and conditions of a Conservation Agreement and Right of First Refusal to be reserved by LELT, and 2) a related Pondicherry Park Stewardship Committee Agreement to be entered into by the Town of Bridgton, LELT, and the Lakes Environmental Association, with the authority of the Board of Selectmen to accept the proposed gift to terminate, subject to renewal by the voters of the Town, if the proposed gift is not accepted by the Board of Selectmen on or before June 30, 2012?[/stextbox]

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz has said several times that many cities and towns across New England and the rest of the country would be thrilled to have a large, naturally forested area close to the downtown, let alone right in the very midst of it.

Concerns raised last week

However, at their meeting last week, just two weeks before the vote itself, some of the Bridgton selectmen and members of the public expressed concerns that the proposed conservation easement and Stewardship Committee agreement are too restrictive.

Chairman Triglione, at one point, referred to Pondicherry Park and the proposed conservation easement as perhaps being “a gift with too many strings attached.”

Selectman Woodward pointed out on Oct. 25, as had been said at the public hearing two weeks earlier, that townspeople were being asked to authorize the selectmen to accept ownership of the wildland park and trails in downtown Bridgton with the caveat that the conservation agreement and Stewardship Committee documents would be negotiated between the board and LELT, with a deadline of no later than June 30, 2012.

A letter to the editor from Peter Morrison, published in The Bridgton News last week, addressed several areas of concern he said he has with the proposed acceptance of Pondicherry Park and the conditions under which it would be overseen.

Open house Nov. 4

Carrie Walia, executive director of LELT and Peter Lowell, executive director of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) announced they will hold an open house from 3 to 6 p.m. tomorrow, Nov. 4, at the LEA/LELT office building on Main Street next door to Key Bank where they will be available to anyone who has questions, concerns or wants more information about Pondicherry Park.

Concerns addressed

On Tuesday, Lowell and Walia sat down with The Bridgton News and addressed each and every point of concern they know about, particularly those raised by Morrison in his letter to the editor.

Walia said, “Since the project was first presented to the selectmen and citizens in 2005, there seemed to be strong support for the concept of a downtown public park. In fact, the 2005 comprehensive plan inspired this project and it emphasizes over and over the importance of such a local resource. This gave the Loon Echo Land Trust and Lakes Environmental Association the confidence to lead the project.”

“Over five years, close to $700,000 has been donated by over 710 donors in our community, including $75,000 from the Town’s Moose Pond Trust Fund,” Walia said further. “Two signature bridges and two miles of walking paths have been constructed. The Park’s main entrance, the Dunning Memorial Bridge, was built by dozens of local craftsmen and artists and will grace the downtown for generations.”

Walia and Lowell explained that there are legal requirements that set standards for conservation easements and that LELT is obligated to follow proper procedure as a non-profit organization. They said the project’s goals “were carefully thought out at a public forum and through the advice of a management plan consultant and consultations with state agencies and other conservation organizations.”

“The conservation easement was crafted with respect to those guidelines and the purposes of the park,” said Lowell. “The ultimate goals of this project to gift the Park to the town and to provide for passive recreation in a natural setting, have been publicly stated from the beginning.”

As to the concerns expressed by the selectmen, Morrison and others, Lowell stated, “Several issues have been raised that demand clarification if the citizens are to cast and informed vote. We’ve done due diligence — we’ve let it be known what we were doing, right from the start. We have made the documents available, met with the selectmen multiple times, and we live here. It’s disappointing some of these people with questions haven’t come and asked us. It’s simply disappointing. Again, we’ve done due diligence and have been available ourselves, and the folks who have questions didn’t come to us.”

Directly addressing comments made Oct. 25 by Triglione and others that the draft document may be too restrictive, Lowell said, “I think it’s very unfair to mischaracterize a project that was meant to be a significant public asset, recreational asset, economic asset and economic engine that was envisioned in the comprehensive plan and we were lucky enough to put it together. To misrepresent, whether unintentionally or intentionally, what these documents are all about is a disservice to voters.”

“I think where we’re at now,” Lowell said, “is we have a complicated document that has been seriously misconstrued and misinterpreted by several individuals, and we need to make sure people are fully informed and know what they’re voting on, because the information out there is not true and fair.”

“The current (proposed conservation) easement and (Stewardship) committee agreement are draft documents and are completely open for negotiation,” said Lowell. “If the board (of selectmen) achieves a result they feel is beneficial to the Town, they will accept the park, if they are not satisfied, they will not. This will all be conducted in open meetings. The deliberations will take careful thought and open discussion to reach a conclusion and the process being considered will provide for that.”

Lowell and Walia addressed the issues raised in Morrison’s letter, starting with who would hold a majority on the Stewardship Committee — LEA and LELT or the town?

“There’s no attempt (by LEA or LELT) to be dictatorial,” said Lowell. “As long as it’s a legitimate town committee, the town can have the majority — we’re very comfortable with that.”

The second issue addressed by Lowell and Walia, is that of any required utility repairs in Pondicherry Park that could take up to 45 days.

“There are no utilities — that’s totally CMP (Central Maine Power),” said Lowell. “The agreement does allow 45 days to repair damage to trails, signs or the kiosk — but, there’s not a lot there to repair — it’s a wildland park with minimal trails and minimal structures. The whole purpose of the Stewardship Committee is to have volunteers adopt a trail — Bridgton Hospital has signed on to the Hospital Loop.”

Issue Three — the mowing and bush hogging of Keene Field:

“The reason Nina Keene’s field was added to Pondicherry Park was because it added another ecosystem,” stated Lowell. “So, yes, we want to maintain that — and it costs $90 per year to keep that field mowed — it was just done.”

Issue Four addressed by Lowell and Walia was the assertion by Morrison that the town “would be responsible for the removal of all invasive plants and insect species, whether it be in water, land or trees.”

“That is totally false,” Lowell said.

“That hasn’t even been defined,” said Walia. “It’s a preventative measure, not a mandate.”

“It says ‘the owner shall have the right,’” Lowell stated. “It’s a right, not an obligation.”

“It does say they are prohibited from planting invasive plants,” said Walia.

Issue Five — Morrison alleges that the proposed conservation easement would prohibit what abutters, including the town, could do with their property.

“We would no longer be able to keep the salt shed for the town where it is because the town is an abutter,” Morrison said, in his letter. “We also would not be able to dispose of snow there during the winter months like we have for the past several years.”

“The statement that the (conservation easement) document would cause the town to close its salt shed is totally false,” Lowell said. “The easement has no authorization past the boundaries of the park. To say there is anything to do with interfering with the Public Works Department is totally false.”

Issue Six — Motorized vehicles in Pondicherry Park — Morrison states that they would be prohibited by the easement, “except LEA would be allowed to for inspections, monitoring and enforcement.”

“There is no basis in truth to that statement,” Lowell said. “LEA isn’t a party to these documents, or a legal entity in this easement. We have no enforcement authority. We don’t have these rights.”

As to the annual cost of maintaining Pondicherry Park, Lowell said, “When we discussed it with the town manager and selectmen, it was generally agreed that $5,000 would be sufficient to do that, and we hope we’ll be able to keep it below that amount, due to the Stewardship Committee and volunteers.”

Lowell said, in conclusion, “In fact, the reason we’re able to create this park is the people who owned the land (that makes up Pondicherry Park) didn’t want to see it developed. We want Pondicherry Park to be a park, not a parking lot.”

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