May 25, 2018
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$2.4M deal conserves Branch Lake watershed

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — City councilors have approved a $2.4 million conservation initiative that will protect almost 1,200 acres within the Branch Lake watershed.

As part of the deal, the council on Monday also authorized borrowing $1.5 million as the city’s share of the multiparty deal. The Land for Maine’s Future program will contribute $900,000, and private donations will provide $50,000 for a total of $2,450,000.

The city has worked with a number of partners for several years to arrange the deal with the Mary C. Fenn Trust, which owns 1,544 acres around the lake, according to Councilor Gary Fortier. The trust has owned the land for about 80 years and is the largest landowner on the lake and in the Branch Lake watershed.

Through a combination of purchase and easements, the initiative will protect 1,196 acres around the lake, which is the source of the city’s water supply.

Under terms of the initiative, the city will buy 451 acres. The Frenchman Bay Conservancy will hold an easement on that land and work with the city to protect the water quality of the lake while developing low-impact, nonmotorized public recreation.

The Forest Society of Maine will hold a working forest easement on 745 acres protecting the conservation values of the property and providing for the sustainable harvest of timber.

Although Fortier acknowledged that the city’s share of the deal is a lot of money, he said the initiative will allow the city to support recreation activities on the property and to continue to protect the city’s water supply.

“It’s so much cheaper to preserve the watershed, if only for the water treatment costs,” he said. “And this will open up 400-plus acres for us to create trails where people can walk, snowshoe, ski and even ride horses on approved trails. This gives us the opportunity to focus on some quality-of-life issues, as well as the infrastruc-ture and economic development issues we’ve been working on. Ellsworth is on the move.”

The vote in the council was 4-2-1 with Councilors Fortier, Stephen Beathem, Pamela Perkins and Matthew Boucher approving the deal. Jon Mahon and John Moore opposed it. and Council Chairman John Phillips abstained. Phillips had provided an easement to the Fenn Trust across a portion of the property affected by the deal.

Both Moore and Mahon objected to the $1.5 million cost of the project.

“Branch Lake is the most protected body of water in the city,” Mahon said. “It’s well-protected without spending $1.5 million.”

Moore agreed and said he would rather see that kind of money spent on the city’s infrastructure needs.

“We’re going to need help repairing roads and bridges,” he said, “and that’s a pretty good sum of money.”

Moore added, however, that he could see there would be “numerous benefits” stemming from the initiative.

The city plans to issue $1,515,000 in general obligation bonds, which will include money to pay administrative costs. A closing on the deal is set for the end of March.

In a separate action, councilors approved changes to city ordinances that will pave the way for the state to construct a public boat landing on Branch Lake.

After years of opposing such a project, the city recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the state Department of Conservation that allows the department to construct a boat launch on a portion of the 1,200 acres it already owns on the lake. The city’s public water supply ordinance permits motorized boats and per-sonal watercraft on the lake, so long as they do not run on marine diesel engines. The city already operates a public boat launch at the southeast end of the lake. That provides limited access to boaters.

The conservation agreement also gives the city the authority to operate the new boat launch facility, including boat inspection and washing stations that will allow the city to protect the lake against invasive species.

City Planner Michelle Gagnon told councilors the ordinance changes were necessary because current restrictions prohibit any boat launches or docks except for residential uses.

Although the Department of Conservation has told the city that work could begin on the boat launch this summer, city officials have indicated the facility likely will not be open to the public until summer 2011.

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