ELLSWORTH, Maine — The city has signed on to a $2.6 million deal that, if completed, will protect through purchase and easements almost 1,200 acres around Branch Lake which serves as Ellsworth’s water supply.
In a split vote Monday, city councilors approved a memorandum of understanding with the Mary C. Fenn Trust that commits $1.5 million of city funds toward the purchase of a portion of the land and the acquisition of a conservation easement on the rest of 1,196 acres on the southern section of Branch Lake. The land contains more than three miles of shoreline on both sides of the lake, including a stretch of shore land on the western shore of Mill Pond, and includes property abutting the city’s water treatment plant.
The city funds will purchase two parcels — one on the western shore, the other on the eastern shore — totaling 425 acres. The funds also will help to acquire the conservation easement on the remainder of the property.
The Land for Maine’s Future Board has approved $640,000 toward the acquisition of the conservation easement, which leaves an additional $460,000 to be raised toward the project. The memorandum of understanding stipulates that the city’s funds will not be released until the rest of the funds have been raised and the property is ready to be transferred.
“This is not a done deal yet,” City Manager Michelle Beal said. “All the stars still have to align for this to come together.”
The city will work with the Fenn Trust and the Trust for Public Lands to raise the balance of the funds. They have until March 15 to complete the deal. The city has been reviewing financing options for its share of the funding, according to Beal.
Also, the memorandum of understanding gives the city a 10-year option to purchase a 133-acre portion of the conservation easement land at its current value of $597 per acre. That parcel is adjacent to the eastern parcel the city will purchase and extends to Moore’s Brook. The option property also abuts 89 acres already in conservation easement.
The Fenn Trust will retain more than 300 acres it already owns.
The council vote came Monday after an executive session to discuss the deal which has been in negotiations for about two years, according to Beal. Part of the property the city will purchase abuts the city’s water treatment facility, and the memorandum of understanding gives the city the right to add onto the plant in the future. The city also could develop a community forest area for limited, nonmotorized recreation activities including hiking trails.
“This gives us an opportunity to protect our water supply,” Beal said. “I don’t know of another open water supply like ours that doesn’t have a conservation easement around it. This also creates a recreation opportunity for the future.”
Councilor Gary Fortier, who worked with Beal on the negotiations for the property, said he fully supported the memorandum and the acquisition of the property despite the tough economic times.
“We have a chance to put our money where our mouth is and use our resources to protect the water quality of one of the premier lakes in the state,” Fortier said. “This will reserve 35 acres for future expansion [of the water treatment plant] and possibly, 20 years down the line, we will have a working community forest for our grandkids to enjoy.”
There also may be some financial benefit to the city by protecting the water supply, Fortier said.
“We may be able to save on costs at the water treatment plant,” he said. “If we can keep the water cleaner, it may be cheaper to filter it.”
Councilor John Moore, however, balked at the price tag, even though he acknowledged the need to protect the land.
“I’ve always felt that the land needs to be protected, but $1.5 million is a lot of money,” he said.
Councilor Jonathan Mahon agreed, pointing out that the lake already is protected.
“Branch Lake has more protections on it than any other body of water in Ellsworth,” he said. “It’s already well-protected.”
Councilor Stephen Beathem agreed that it was a tough time to commit city funds, but argued that, in the long run, it will be worth it. This is a “terrible” time to spend that much money, but it is the right thing to do for the future, he said.
“Ten to 15 years from now, this will be money well-spent,” he said.
Newly elected Councilor Matthew Boucher supported the memorandum of understanding, pointing out that the property might not always be available. If it does become available again, he said, it will cost a lot more.
Councilor Pamela Perkins said the city had spent a lot of money on economic development in the city which was a good investment. It was time, she said, that the city put an effort into conserving the environment.
The vote was 4-2, with Councilors Mahon and Moore opposed. Council Chairman John Phillips abstained. Phillips had provided an easement to the Fenn Trust across a portion of the property that is affected by the deal.