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PORTLAND, Maine — When husband and wife Todd Swinton and Erin Larson moved to their neighborhood, they immediately fell in love with the nearly 13-acre wooded property where their dead-end Torrey Street came to a stop.
Swinton and Larson led a neighborhood effort to clean up trash and old tires that had accumulated there, built footbridges over streams and established trails. Diverse trees there tower overhead, shading a hidden frog pond and urban throughway for wildlife usually confined to more rural areas, such as deer. Standing in the middle of Canco Woods, so named by area residents for its abutment to Canco Road, one is simultaneously within a short hike of city activity and yet camped in a lesser-known pocket of wilderness.
But while the property has long been used recreationally by hikers, ice skaters, mountain bikers, dog walkers, wildlife watchers and solace seekers, it has always legally been private. And now, a sale of the site is pending, and neighbors like Swinton and Larson are worried about development under the property’s previously dormant light industrial zoning designation.
“If the woods are bulldozed and the area is built-up, we would be devastated,” Torrey Street resident Victoria Kostadinova told the Bangor Daily News. “Our quality of life would decline decidedly. We already feel heartbroken, and our kids just can’t understand why people would want to destroy such a beautiful, peaceful, magical place — a place they love to play in any time of year, and one that is home to so many creatures.”
Danielle Vayenas lives in the home farthest down Torrey Street and closest to the woods. She said she was the first in the neighborhood to notice the “for sale” sign on the lot last month on the way home from work, then she saw the “sale pending” addition appear just a few days later.
CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Co. has the 12.75-acre property listed for $350,000. According to city records, the site is assessed at a value of $683,600 and is taxed about $12,496.
When she learned of the sale, Vayenas contacted neighbors and began a “Save Canco Woods” campaign and launched a Facebook page for the cause. The group began printing fliers about the threat of development and posting them near the site.
“We just wanted anybody who lives in the area to know it could be totally torn down,” Vayenas said. “That’s a worst-case scenario — that it gets paved over for parking lots, office buildings, a school or warehouses — but it could happen. “
The mystery surrounding who is considering buying the site is part of what’s fueling concern in the neighborhood. Drew Sigfridson, the broker with CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Co. working the deal, did not respond to a phone call by the Bangor Daily News placed last Thursday.
John Carroll, spokesman for Central Maine Power Co., which owns the property through subsidiary Union Water Power Co., said the utility firm originally acquired the acreage several years ago as potential expansion space for its abutting Canco Road facility. But he said the company has no such plans now and it became excess property. Carroll said Monday he doesn’t know who the prospective buyer is.
Rumors circulated at one point that the site would be purchased by the Friends School of Portland, whose lease for space on Mackworth Island in Falmouth expires in two years and is eyeing potential new locations. But James Grumbach, head of the school, told the BDN Monday that while his team has looked at the site, the school is not the entity with whom a sale is pending.
“We have no plans to move there,” Grumbach said. “We understand the property is under contract — although, we are certainly looking at parcels of land that might lend themselves to construction of a new school.”
District 4 City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she also doesn’t know who the possible buyer is, but she said she spoke with Sigfridson, and left with the impression the buyer understands the neighborhood concerns.
“He did indicate that he didn’t think the neighborhood would be disappointed by what was being proposed for the property,” Leeman said.
She also said nightmarish smokestacks “often conjured up by the word ‘industrial’” aren’t allowed in the light industrial zone, which is commonly used for small office buildings.
“That area is zoned light industrial, so conceivably it could be warehousing like on [nearby] Read Street, but not factories,” Vayenas agreed.
Leeman said the city owns an easement at the end of Torrey Street, preventing any future development from connecting it through the woods to Canco Road on the other side, a move many neighbors expressed concerns about. She also noted the potential wetlands restrictions that could challenge any future developer.
“There will not be a through street, and that does give us some leverage, too, into how that property is developed,” she said. “It’s 12 acres and it’s so wet that it’s going to be difficult to develop most of that property outside of the part closest to Canco Road.”
But until a developer completes a sale for the property and unveils plans for the site, Leeman said, neither the neighbors nor city officials can really be sure how to react.
“It’s kind of a waiting game,” she said.