2017-10-06 / Front Page

New hope for Hope Cemetery

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Only a couple of years after ponying up $100,000 to help the Kennebunk Land Trust (KLT) buy 111-acres off Webber Hill Road, the town may soon be hit up again, this time for 75 acres in the heart of Kennebunk.

If funds can be raised, the land trust hopes to buy a conservation easement on the woods between Woodhaven Drive and Hope Cemetery, located at the intersection of Route 1 and Summer Street — a 25-acre burial ground that dates to 1790.

The Hope Cemetery Corporation that oversees the site is in need of cash for continued operations, and one way to raise money would be to turn the adjoining 75-acre forest it owns into a 55-lot residential subdivision — an option that has been considered according to a Sept. 19 letter to the board of selectmen.

But the authors of that letter — land trust president Tom Wellman, KLT executive director Gordon Collins and George Harrington, co-chairman of the newly formed Friends of Hope Cemetery and Woods — say there is a better way.

“Changing burial practices in recent decades have undermined the long-term financial stability of Hope Cemetery Corp.,” the trio wrote. “To avoid having to cease operations in the future, in which case the cemetery would be turned over to the town, Hope Cemetery Corporation needs to monetize the value of the adjacent forest, known as Hope Woods.

“Rather than sell the property for development, a new organization, Friends of Hope Cemetery and Woods, and joined with the Kennebunk Land Trust to launch an initiative to preserve Hope Woods. We plan to raise funds that will allow the land trust to purchase a conservation easement from Hope Cemetery Corp. that will preserve Hope Woods for public enjoyment and secure the future of Hope Cemetery.”

To that end, the land trust intends to submit a grant application to the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund.

To improve the chances of success, the application will include plans for preservation of Wiggins Pond, an old ice pond that is part of a town owned preserve abutting Hope Woods.

The only hitch is that the grant application is due by Nov. 17 and Wiggins Pond is not an easy fix to prepare, let alone actually accomplish.

“We’re very early in the planning stages,” Wellman told selectmen at their Sept. 26 meeting. “We’re looking to put this all together and figure out the cost of a study to figure out what needs to be done to the Wiggins Pond dam areas, to clean those up and get those back into shape. But, we’re in kind of a time crunch, in the world of town government.”

Wellman asked selectmen to authorize having town staff work out a plan for drafting that plan, enabling completing of the grant application. For the most part, the board expressed support for the request.

“It’s a little jewel in the middle of Kennebunk, but unless you know it’s there you have no way of knowing it’s there,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said, referring to the woods and the hiking trails built by the friends group over the past year or so.

However, as it turned out, selectmen did not need to vote on the proposal, as Town Manager Mike Pardue said directing staff as requested was well within his purview. Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder estimated the work of pulling together enough information to get the ball rolling would take less than a day of his time.

“I don’t think it will have a significant impact on staff resources,” Pardue said. “A day or two of effort to assist in this vision is, I think, appropriate.”

But that doesn’t mean the project is a foregone conclusion. Wellman said he planned to return to the board Oct. 10, or 24, to make a more formal presentation. That could include how much the land trust might need from the town in matching funds in order to get the federal grant.

The town has an open space reserve fund set up specifically to help finance the acquisitions of land for public use. But after the Webber Hill Road purchase, “That pot of money is rapidly deteriorating,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said.

“Pretty soon the well will run dry,” board chairman Dick Morin agreed.

Meanwhile, Selectman Ed Karytko pointed out that nearly every time the land trust takes on a new swath of land, its status as a nonprofit knocks that property off the tax rolls.

“Part of the reason people come here is because we do have these area. Everything is a trade-off,” Wellman replied.

At the time of the Webber Hill Road purchase, then-town manager Barry Tibbetts said the land trust owned 37 lots in Kennebunk, totaling 1,176 acres, or about 5 percent of the town’s total land area. Add to that now the 111 acres on Webber Hill Road. Of those parcels, 22 are tax exempt, while the trust does pay taxes on the remaining 15 lots.

On those lots, the land trust paid $2,491 in taxes in 2015. The 22 tax-exempt parcels would have netted $37,500 for Kennebunk coffers, had they been taxed at full value, Tibbetts said.

Kennebunk has, in the past, required “covenant and restrictions,” subject to approval by voters, as part of any tax exempt request. That helps to explain why some land trust 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 law court ruled property holdings of land trusts meet the “charitable and benevolent” requirement for the waiving of taxes, meaning that avenue may no longer be an option.

Counting property in Kennebunk owned by the state of Maine and the federal government through the Rachel Carson Preserve, together with Kennebunk Land Trust holdings, about 3,960 acres in town, or more than 17 percent of Kennebunk’s total land area, is not subject to property taxes.

The Kennebunk Land Trust was formed in 1972 and now conserves more than 3,500 acres in Kennebunk, including areas managed for private landowners as part of conservation easements.

One other consideration is that Wiggins Pond might take a fair degree of work. The pond is only about 2 feet deep and is capped on one end by a timber dam.

“You can probably walk across it if you’re brave and wear waders,” Osterrieder said.

Following the Patriots Day storm in 2007, which took out part of the dam, the town received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make repairs. Even so, today the dam reportedly struggles to maintain its integrity.

“I would not put it in good condition at all,” Osterrieder said. “It’s not worth anything, politely. If [the timbers] were to fall again we probably would not stack them back up again and keep chasing after it. I’d have to stand back and ask, OK, what is the longterm plan here?”

“It’s a minor impoundment is what it is, it probably needs to be dredged,” Osterrieder said of the pond. “Clearly, we can do this analysis and look at some comprehensive planning for the area, recreating that, or restoring that from an environmental standpoint, but that it’s there holding back water and what does that mean, also recognizing there’s adjacent developments. We don’t want to make the pond deeper by [shoring up the dam and] flooding it more, because then you have impacts to neighborhoods.”

Wellman said part of the plan will be to sell the town a recreation easement over trails in Hope Woods. Because those trails cross into the Wiggins Pond Preserve, that would allow the land trust to use some of the federal grant, if awarded, on its property as well.

But the time to apply for those dollars is now, at least according to Jerry Bly, head of Readfield-based Creative Conservation, which is partnering with the land trust and the friends group on the project.

“With all the upheaval in Washington, it’s unclear whether grants from the conservation fund will continue,” he said.

Meanwhile, Karytko cracked wise, suggesting to his peers they may went to support the initiative when if comes back to them later this month.

“If we vote against this, we might have to find someplace else to be buried,” he joked.

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

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