2016-07-29 / Community

KLT accepts fallout for role in rose cutting

Trust: Executive director’s decision to step down is unrelated and ‘in the works for some time’
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Isabel Lescure and Tom Wellman, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Kennebunk Land Trust, stand amidst the rosa regusa bushes on trust land off Great Hill Road, near Strawberry Island. Although rapidly growing back, the beach roses were trimmed illegally late last year, drawing a notice of violation from the town, with a probable fine to come at the August 9 selectmen’s meeting. (Duke Harrington photo) Isabel Lescure and Tom Wellman, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Kennebunk Land Trust, stand amidst the rosa regusa bushes on trust land off Great Hill Road, near Strawberry Island. Although rapidly growing back, the beach roses were trimmed illegally late last year, drawing a notice of violation from the town, with a probable fine to come at the August 9 selectmen’s meeting. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — With a consent agreement and possible fine from the town on the way, Kennebunk Land Trust has accepted full responsibility for an illegal cut of rosa rugosa bushes at the access point to Strawberry Island, off Great Hill Road.

“We’re people. We messed up and we’re willing to own that,” said Isabel Lescure, chairman of KLT’s board of directors, on Monday.

However, Lescure said the resignation of KLT’s executive director, Marie Louise St. Onge, does not stem from the situation recently cast upon the land trust by Kennebunk selectmen.

“That has been in the works for some time. So, one does not have anything to do with the other,” Lescure said. “The timing is what it is, but they’re absolutely not related. It’s important to me that the people understand that.”

In late 2015, KLT hired Boiling Spring Landscape of Dayton to prune rosa rugosa, or beach roses, from a small beachfront lot on Great Hill Road.

Located where the road makes a 90-degree turn along the shorefront, near the intersection of Robie Road, the 12,000-square-foot parcel is a small area that leads to an outcrop known locally as Strawberry Island. Although hard to imagine today, given erosion that’s taken place over the past half century, Strawberry Island actually had a farmhouse and barn on it until the mid-1960s, when both were destroyed by fire.

The corner lot is partly owned by Kennebunk Beach Improvement Association Charitable Holdings (KBIA). However, Lecure acknowledges KLT instructed Boiling Spring to prune the entire parcel. It cut back the rugosa bushes from a reported height of nearly 6 feet — according to Kennebunk Code Enforcement Officer Paul Demers; closer to 4 feet in the opinion of KLT vice chairman Tom Wellman — down to six inches from the ground.

“We pruned it to promote root growth, to help protect the dune,” Lescure said. “We did not prune it to kill the vegetation. We’re a land trust. We don’t do that.”

“But I want to make this clear,” Lescure added. “We did hire Boiling Spring, because they’ve done this work for us in the past. We told them what to do, and we paid for them. I have the receipt and I have the check. So, I do not hold them responsible at all. I take that responsibility.”

Boiling Spring owner Brad Meserve did not return calls or email messages left Monday requesting comment.

Demers said he was first notified of the cut by neighbors, and took a look at the lot on Feb. 23, his concern drawn by the fact the property sits in both the resource protection and shoreland overlay districts. Rules within those zoning areas prohibit cutting of existing vegetation located within 75 feet of the high water line, except to remove safety hazards.

Demers told selectmen at their July 12 meeting that while KLT and/or KBIA can prune rugosa bushes on the lot with permission from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), those plants even then should not have been cut any lower than 3 feet high.

Although rosa rugosa is an invasive species from Asia, it’s also what’s helping to hold the dune in place, protecting it from further erosion, Demers said.

Lescure and Wellman agree Demers first advised KLT in early April of its transgression in the eyes of state and local zoning laws

“We felt we took complete ownership of what we did and Paul did not give us any indication [of impending legal action],” Lescure said. “At that point, we were handling it internally.”

St. Onge submitted her resignation in early June. Lescure said that had more to do with the successful completion of a $600,000 capital campaign to fund acquisition and conservation of a 111-acre parcel off Webber Hill Road, adjacent to the Mousam River. In November 2015, Kennebunk residents voted overwhelmingly, 1,770-534, to seed that project with $100,000.

“Mary Louise handed that campaign masterfully,” Lescure said. “Her guidance was very much appreciated and needed, but she now feels that she wants to move on and try some other things. The timing was right for her, so, she gave the board her resignation and we accepted it. I am very grateful, and the board is very grateful, for her near 17 years of service at the land trust.”

“I really have loved by work with the land trust,” St. Onge said on Monday. “I’ve taken great pride in my work, particularly the very successful capital campaign we’ve just completed. But at this time the land trust is strong, I’m strong, and it’s a good junction to think about doing something else.”

St. Onge will remain on the job until Sept. 1. Lescure said the KLT board has already hired her successor, who will train with St. Onge before taking up the reins. However, Lescure said KLT prefers not to name its new director until the formal transfer.

“We’ll be submitting a press release at that time,” she said.

Asked what plans she can announce for her post-KLT career, St. Onge said, “nothing for the newspaper.”

Meanwhile, on June 21, less than a month after St. Onge submitted her resignation, Demers handed her a notice of violation for the rugosa cut.

In a memo to Demers drafted the same day, St. Onge apologized for the violation, saying, “I was unaware of the zoning requirements governing pruning at Strawberry Island.”

She also took responsibility for drawing KBIA — which got a violation notice of its own — into conflict with the town, saying the exact boundary between the two lots has “historically been unclear to both organizations.”

“As a result, when KLT has done pruning on the property, we have done so to optimize the appearance of the entire area. Thus we have pruned the entire parcel,” she wrote.

However, in a June 30 letter to Demers, KBIA lawyer Alan Shepard, of the Kennebunk firm Shepard & Read, adopted a different view.

“A few years ago [KLT] engaged in some similar trimming activity that spilled over onto the KBIA property,” he wrote. “At that time, the director of KBIA called the trust and informed them of this activity and was assured that it would not be repeated.

“Under these circumstances, it came as a surprise when some trimming was done over the winter by KLT and again included the parcel owned by KBIA,” Shepard wrote.

“Yes, we went on to their land,” Lescure said. “We did it and we’ve owned it, and we’re willing to make restitution to KBIA. They had asked that we not cut without telling them and we forgot to do that. It was a complete oversight on our part. “

Lescure said she and St. Onge have written a letter of apology to KBIA.

In an email Monday, KBIA executive director Martin Lodish, who was highly critical of the KLT cut during the July 12 selectmen’s meeting, declined to comment on Lescure’s apology and restitution offer, pending final settlement of the issue.

Selectmen are expected to unveil a consent agreement at their Aug. 9 meeting. Whether that plan will include a fine is unknown, but selectmen have indicated they are likely to at least ask KLT to reimburse the town for any legal costs incurred in having town attorney William Dale draw up the forms.

“We’re happy to do that,” Lescure said. “I don’t think the taxpayers should have to pay for that.”

Meanwhile, Lescure and Wellmen say KLT has already taken steps to correct the situation in advance of any order from the town.

“This land, it’s never really been separated. There’s never been a distinct line, between the KLT side and KBIA’s since it was divided up and given to each of us decades ago,” Wellman said. “But when we made this mistake, we went out and had the whole thing surveyed, so this would not be repeated again. We’re not touching KBIA property any more.”

Lescure said KLT also has begun work on a land management plan for the future, to ensure both that KBIA is consulted on any future pruning needs, and to make certain when the bushes are trimmed next, it’s done in accordance with all state and local land use laws, and with DEP waivers in hand allowing the cut.

Meanwhile, Wellman, who was in the landscaping business himself for 20 years, notes that, apart from maybe being a bit shorter at present than they might have been otherwise, the rosa rugosa bushes are thriving, and growing back, as intended.

“None of this was done maliciously,” he said. “None of this was done to ruin or improve anyone’s view of the ocean or this property. We were only doing what is proper pruning procedure for rosa rugosas, and how you get them to thrive and expand. That was our purpose. That’s really all we wanted to do. There’s no sinister or deep, dark conspiracies here.”

“It’s true we did go on to KBIA property without them knowing it,” Lescure said. “That was wrong of us. We admit it and we apologize for it. I would like the public to know that KBIA had nothing to do with this.”

But Lescure says she knows it is not only KBIA members the land trust must now court. The real damage was not to the beach roses, she said, but to KLT’s reputation.

“You know, I grew up here and I’ve chosen to raise my family here,” Lescure said. “The land trust has been a big part of this community for 44 years. It’s done a lot of good in that time. We have never had a violation of any kind in all that time, and I will do everything in my power to restore the community’s faith in the land trust again.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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