2015-09-25 / Front Page

Trust request goes to voters

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk have sent voters a $100,000 funding request that will help the local land trust take advantage of a “rare opportunity” to acquire more than 100 acres of pristine woods, but the decision was a narrow one, just squeaking through by a 4-3 vote.

According to Tom Wellman, a former town selectman who now serves as treasurer of the Kennebunk Land Trust (KLT), the group has a purchase and sale agreement with the Biddeford-based Leander O. Crepeau Trust to buy three lots totaling 111 acres off Webber Hill Road. The vacant land features fields, forests and wetlands, as well as nearly 1 mile of frontage on the Mousam River.

“This will allow us to make available forever a piece of land that will allow our grandchildren to experience nature and the importance of the environment, long after all of us are gone. This is a rare opportunity,” Wellman told selectmen at their Aug. 11 meeting.

At that session, Wellman asked for a $100,000 donation from the town to help KLT meet the $600,000 asking price.

According to Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, $30,000 of the town donation would come from an open space reserve fund set up to help fund the acquisitions of land for public use.

The remaining $70,000 would come from the town’s undesignated surplus account. As such, that part of the funding mechanism requires voter approval at the polls Nov. 3.

At a public hearing Sept. 8, Wellman said the purchase “fits very well” with the town’s 2004 Comprehensive Open Space Plan, later incorporated into the town’s comprehensive plan, which listed the site as a being one of the “highest environmental priority areas” for which the reserve fund had been created.

“This property is what the taxpayers were thinking of when they voted and allocated funds for conservation,” Wellman said.

However, the open space reserve only contains $30,000 because, in more recent years, selectmen and budget board members have suspended annual contributions to the account.

“It’s unfortunate the whole country fell on such hard times, and those contributions ended, because otherwise there would be plenty of money in there to just go out and buy this property,” said former selectman Al Searles, who sat on the budget board when the reserve account was created.

“I think this is a good purchase for the town and it goes along with the vast majority of the people in town, who are very conservation-minded,” Searles said at the Sept. 8 meeting.

“Decisions were made to stop parking money in the open space fund and now is the time to make good on the promises that were made,” agreed current budget board member John Costin.

Selectmen seemed generally enthusiastic about preserving the lot, but some wondered openly if it was worth taking money from the town’s undesignated surplus account in the short term, or taking the property off the tax rolls in the long term.

“Should we just take that from surplus and spend it, or should we run it through the budget process? Should we be more fiscally responsible with spending $70,000?” Selectman Christopher Cluff asked.

“That $70,000, if it’s kicking around to be spent, should be paid back to the downtown TIF (Tax Increment Financing district) that we previously borrowed from to complete the Waterhouse Center,” Selectman Richard Morin said.

“If you were out there raising money and fell short, I could understand, but you’re coming to us up front, which bothers me a little,” Selectman Ed Karytko told Wellman. “I have no problem with the project. I think it’s a great project. It’s more a matter of how we fund this?”

However, Selectman Shiloh Schulte pointed out that if the warrant article to make the donation is approved by voters, the money will not be given to KLT unless and until it raises the remaining portion of the purchase price. The up front commitment, he said, is simply seed money demonstrating to other potential donors the town’s support for conserving the land.

Wellman said KLT will build trails on the site to support hiking and access to the river. The trust will cover all future costs of property maintenance, he added.

The Kennebunk Conservation and Open Space Planning Commission voted unanimously Aug. 31 to support the purchase, provided signs are posted that notes the property, which will “remain open public space forever,” would also remain open to hunting.

According to Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, KLT owns 37 lots in Kennebunk, totaling 1,176 acres, or about 5 percent of the town’s total land area. Of those parcels, 22 are tax exempt, owning to KLT’s nonprofit status, while the trust does pay taxes on the remaining 15 lots. On those lots, KLT paid $2,491 in taxes last year.

The 22 exempt parcels would have netted $37,500 for Kennebunk coffers, had they been taxed at full value, Tibbetts said.

The 111 acres up for transfer are assessed by the town at $418,400, Tibbetts said, meaning if those lots drop from the tax rolls, the town would lose $6,402 in tax revenue, at the current mil rate.

Kennebunk has, in the past, required “covenant and restrictions,” subject to approval by voters, as part of any request for tax exemption.

That helps to explain why some KLT properties are subject to taxation, and not others. However, Tibbetts noted that in a 2014 Superior Court case —Francis Small Heritage Trust v. Town of Limington — the court ruled that property holdings of land trusts meet the “charitable and benevolent” requirement for the waiving of taxes.

“This may eliminate the town’s ability to require restrictions on any future requests (from KLT) for exemption,” Tibbetts said.

About 17 percent of Kennebunk’s total land area encompassing around 3,850 acres is not subject to property taxes, Tibbetts said.

The land includes property owned by the state of Maine and the federal government through the Rachel Carson Preserve, together with KLT holdings.

However, Searles reminded his one-time peers that, after the Waterhouse Center was first proposed, private funds began to roll in to support the project. Similar donations would likely follow a purchase of the Webber Hill Road lots, he predicted, making up for some of the lost tax revenue.

“This is an opportunity we can’t pass up. I hope we can take advantage of it,” said state legislator Chris Babbidge (D – Kennebunk).

Ultimately, Cluff, Karytko and Morin voted against sending the funding request to voters.

KLT was formed in 1972 and now conserves more than 3,400 acres in Kennebunk, including acres managed for private landowners as part of conservation easements. According to Wellman, KLT has never before gone to the town with its hand out. However, it only has until May to raise the dollars needed to complete the sale. The plan, he said, is for $500,000 to be raised through a capital campaign and private donations.

“There are not any grants available at this point,” he said. “The land trust money at the state level appears to be a little hung up. If we don’t purchase this I assume it would go back on the market to be sold for whatever use is allowed in that area.”

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