2017-11-03 / Front Page

Kennebunk to dig for a ‘hidden gem’

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The town of Kennebunk has what has been called a “hidden gem” right in the middle of the town, but putting the shine back on that amenity will require substantial digging.

At their Oct. 24 meeting, selectmen voted 5-1 to commit up to $40,000 as the local match toward a project to dredge Wiggins Pond. Selectmen Ed Karytko voted against the expenditure, while Selectman Shiloh Schulte was absent from the meeting.

The idea of dredging the shallow pond — created long ago by damming a small creek near Fletcher Street as a place to harvest ice for refrigeration in the days before the advent of electricity — was first posed to selectmen at their Sept. 26 meeting.

At that session, Tom Wellman, president of the Kennebunk Land Trust, pitched a partnership with the town to help save Hope Cemetery, a 25-acre burial ground located at the intersection of Route 1 and Summer Street.

The Hope Cemetery Corporation which oversees the site is in need of cash for continued operations and one way to raise money, Wellman said, would be to purchase a conservation easement on an adjoining 75-acre forest owned by the cemetery.

According to George Harrington, president of the Friends of Hope Cemetery and Woods, Maine has the highest rate of cremation in the country, with 70 percent of all Mainers choosing that method for dealing with their remains. And while some of those ashes are then buried, many end up on mantles, or spread over favored locations from life.

“When you have that, you just don’t have the revenue you had before,” he said. “Every year we lose money and that comes out of our endowment. By doing this [selling a conservation easement] we can raise a tremendous amount of money, and that will go into our endowment to make us self-sustaining.”

To that end, the land trust intends to submit a grant application to the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. To improve the chances of success, the application will include plans for restoration of nearby Wiggins Pond, which already is part of a town-owned preserve and creation of walking trails through the woods, across the preserve, and around the pond, to expand on a trail network the friends group already maintains.

The Wiggins Pond piece of the puzzle has to come first, Wellman said, because the grant application is due by Nov. 17.

According to rough estimates provided by Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder, it would cost about $80,000 to build a new parking area and trailhead at the end of Wood Pond Lane and to dredge Wiggins Pond to a depth of six feet. The wooden dam that now holds back water to form the pond would be replaced by an earthen berm.

“Once it gets above a certain level water would just spill out and go past the area and not actually use a dam system,” Wellman explained to selectmen.

According to an Oct. 18 memo submitted to selectmen by Wellman and Harrington, as part of the project, the land trust would kick in $37,500 to buy a town easement to hiking trails in Hope Woods, along with another $20,000 to link those to the Wiggins Pond Preserve trails.

According to Wellman, once the Wiggins Pond overhaul is complete, the land trust will seek to buy a conservation easement on Hope Woods, adding it to the portfolio of more than 3,500 acres in town it now either maintains via easements, or owns outright.

But not everyone quite got how renovations to Wiggins Pond connects to the eventual Hope Woods transaction, particularly given Wellman’s acknowledgement that the land trust will most likely come back to the town sometime next year with its hand of for a contribution to make purchase of the easement possible.

“I’m not sure how us doing this bit about Wiggins Pond does anything for your project,” Selectman William Ward said.

“That’s not the reason we are here,” cemetery president Betsy Stevens said. “But the motivating factor that got us out of the boardroom is the fact that we are having to draw down on our investments in order to meet our expenses.

“Because we abut the town property, our vision is that the town has the potential to develop this incredible resource — Wiggins Mud Puddle, which is what it is at the moment, and the creek that comes out of it, and the dam that’s been repaired several times but never in a way that made it fully functional — that’s what motivated us to come to the table and say, we’re working on our trails, we’re also taking care of your trails, let’s make this a gem in downtown Kennebunk,” Stevens said. “That’s why we are offering to pay for our consultant [Jerry Bley] to write the grant, if the town is interested in doing this.”

“This is still a good step for the town no matter what we do in the future,” Wellman added. “This will sort of bring that pond back to being a vibrant use for the townspeople.”

“This is a win-win for right now,” Selectman Blake Baldwin agreed.

Still, some selectmen questioned future costs. Wellman did not have a figure for how much a conservation easement to Hope Woods might cost, or how much the land trust might want from the town to make that happen. However, even with that the $37,500 trail easement to be sold as part of the Wiggins Pond phase of the project, there is still a chance the cemetery could someday still drain its endowment, given annual maintenance costs that have run between $132,000 and $148,000 over the past three years.

Cluff noted that if the cemetery group ever folds, the town would be obligated to take on cemetery management and maintenance at taxpayer expense.

“This isn’t a one-time shot. I think we’re going to sell it to ourselves, eventually. That’s what I’m gathering,” he said.

“I’m having a tough time. I really am,” Karytko said. “I understand the worth of the project, but there are a lot of people out there who think getting Ross Road done is a more important project. What if the town says no [to later purchase of the conservation easement to all of Hope Woods]. Do you have the ability to raise that money on your own?”

Wellman said significant fundraising efforts will take place, even with a town contribution to the larger sale.

Although he supported the first phase with the Wiggins Pond rehab, Baldwin questioned if it might not be better for the Cemetery Corp to sell off some of the woods as housing lots.

“We considered it and we rejected that option because we see the potential for basically offering ot the town a preserve that will only do more to attract people to Kennebunk,” Stevens said.

But Baldwin suggested some housing development might help the town by putting that area back on the tax rolls. That drew husband and wife team John Costin and Rachel Phipps to the microphone from the audience.

“This is just a beautiful, beautiful spot,” Phipps said. “It’s incredible. It’s gorgeous. It really is a sort of hidden gem right in the heart of our town. And they [the Friends group] have already done a magnificent job with the trails. But a residential development ends up costing taxpayers.”

“The uncomfortable truth is that if they can’t put this together, if this land were to be sold into development to supposedly be put on the tax rolls, that’s a net loss for the town, because it costs $117,000 to education just one child, K-12,” Costin said. “Every house that you put up in this town is an enormous cost to taxpayers. So, when we are looking at conserving land, we also are looking at conserving dollars.”

However, Karytko countered that not all homebuyers in Kennebunk these days are young families. But beyond that, the argument on what kind of development is best, if any, was left to another day, as was Wellman’s promised return to seek funding for the full conservation easement on Hope Woods.

For their part, selectmen agreed to fund the Wiggins Pond dredge and trail project using funds set aside by voters in 2007 to fund grant applications that require a local match. According to town Finance Director Joel Downs, that $50,000 fund was only ever dipped into once, and still has $41,200 available. Selectmen agreed to draw “up to $40,000.”

That’s the eventual cost to the town, after it gets reimbursed by the feds. However, Wellman said the total cost of $80,000 would have to be expended first before the grant money can be applied.

Selectmen did not address where that additional $40,000 will come from until paid back.

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

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