Approval of the $1 million conservation bonds would be met with anonymous $200,000 grants.
by Edward D. Murphy, staff writer
SCARBOROUGH — It’s a tough time to ask voters to spend more money, especially for something that doesn’t involve an essential town service.
But in November, Scarborough voters will be asked to approve a $1 million bond authorization – on top of $2.4 million the town now has in untapped bonding authorization – to buy land that would conserve open space.
The request is driven by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation, which is offering the town $200,000 from an anonymous donor if the $1 million from the bond is used for land conservation.
Windham also is asking voters to approve a $1 million bond for land conservation, to make itself eligible for another $200,000 grant from the foundation.
Tom Hall, Scarborough’s town manager, said he recognizes that times are hard, with the nation still gripped by a recession. But, he said, the weak economy makes it an attractive time for a town like Scarborough to buy land that, in better times, would be snatched up by developers.
“Now is the time to be buying land – the price is going down,” he said.
Scarborough doesn’t have a specific property in mind, Hall said, but some of the money could be spent on a parking lot at Higgins Beach that a local family wants to sell to the town.
Scarborough would like to buy the lot because it’s the only public parking available at Higgins Beach, where an on-street parking ban is strictly enforced.
The town is negotiating with the family and hopes to complete a sale late this year or early in 2010. The land is assessed at $1.4 million, but Hall has said a house on the lot would not be part of the deal, and he thinks the final price will be less than the assessment.
Meredith Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Community Foundation, said her organization is talking to communities other than Windham and Scarborough about the grants, but those discussions are preliminary. She declined to identify the communities because of the early nature of the discussions.
She said the person who is putting up the money for the grants has “a deep appreciation and roots” in the state.
“This is a donor who cares deeply about making sure that communities have saved precious places that are very local and cared about locally,” Jones said.
Jim Gooch, program director for the Maine office of the Trust for Public Land, said local conservation programs are becoming more important in the overall effort to preserve open space.
He said Maine voters have consistently backed bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program, which buys open spaces for conservation.
But state lawmakers have been putting smaller and smaller bond issues before voters, he said.
Scarborough is “exemplary” as a town that puts money and time into its conservation program, Gooch said, particularly since it’s a suburban town that has grown quickly in recent years.
“What you’re looking at in Scarborough is a town that realizes that land in town is costly,” he said, and that’s why it has asked for considerable bonding authority from residents.
Jack Anderson, president of the board of the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust, said his group plans “some voter education,” in light of the economy, to try to win approval of the bond authorization.
He said one argument will be that even if voters authorize the bond, no money will be spent unless worthy projects are found.
Anderson said that past conservation purchases have generally required the town to put up only about a third of the purchase price. State and federal grants have provided some of the balance, he said, as have private donations.
Voters have always been supportive of the town’s and the land trust’s conservation efforts, he said.
“The people in Scarborough realize that you don’t want to see a place lose the attributes that attracted you there in the first place,” he said. “We’re not trying to fight development, but we need to keep a balance.”>/p>