Canco Woods neighbors join land trust, line up to buy and protect urban forest site

Todd Swinton, Erin Larson and their dog Emme stand on an undeveloped parcel of land known locally as Canco Woods in Portland Thursday, March 22, 2012. The couple, and many of their neighbors, would like to see the 12-acre lot preserved rather than developed.
Todd Swinton, Erin Larson and their dog Emme stand on an undeveloped parcel of land known locally as Canco Woods in Portland Thursday, March 22, 2012. The couple, and many of their neighbors, would like to see the 12-acre lot preserved rather than developed. Buy Photo
Posted June 18, 2012, at 1:30 p.m.
Last modified June 18, 2012, at 3:15 p.m.
Dogs and their owners walk on an undeveloped, 12-acre parcel of land between Ocean Avenue and Canco Road in Portland Thursday, March 22, 2012. The land is known locally as Canco Woods.
Dogs and their owners walk on an undeveloped, 12-acre parcel of land between Ocean Avenue and Canco Road in Portland Thursday, March 22, 2012. The land is known locally as Canco Woods. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — More than two months after neighbors of the Portland pocket forest known as Canco Woods learned of a looming sale of the space — and the potential for light industrial development there — they’ve partnered with a land trust to protect it.

The grassroots Friends of Canco Woods has linked arms with The Trust for Public Land, and has until November to raise $400,000 to buy and permanently preserve the 12.75-acre property informally used for decades as a wooded oasis surrounded on all sides by urban development.

In late March, neighbors of the park on Torrey Street and other nearby neighborhoods rallied around an effort to save the woods after learning the property’s owner, Central Maine Power Co. subsidiary Union Water Power Co., had a sale pending. Despite the wooded area’s longtime use by local hikers, mountain bikers, ice skaters and dog walkers — as well as migrating deer and other wild animals — the acreage was designated on city maps as zoned for light industrial development.

The prospect of portions of the property being redeveloped for office space or parking lots struck fear into the neighbors, who were not told who the prospective buyer was or what that entity planned to do with the site.

Now, however, Friends of Canco Woods finds itself with another bite at the proverbial apple, and the neighborhood group hopes to make the most of it.

“It was back on the market,” Gregg Caporossi, a project manager for The Trust for Public Land, told the Bangor Daily News Monday. “For whatever reason, that deal fell through, and we were able to get it under contract with Union Water Power.”

The Trust for Public Land has already worked with the local organization Portland Trails to establish the Bayside Trail and the nationwide group’s first Maine project was the establishment of the Eastern Promenade Trail.

“Neighbors and friends of the woods were dismayed when that ‘for sale’ sign went up, and immediately thereafter the land was under contract. We rallied our forces and found great partners to work with in the Trust for Public Land, and we hope our efforts will now pay off,” said Danielle Vayenas, who lives closest to the woods on Torrey Street and first noticed the sale signs in March. “We never hoped the city or anyone else would just give us the land; we always hoped we’d have a chance at purchasing and preserving it, and now we do.

“It will take a lot of effort and monetary contributions to make it happen, but we’re all positive we can save this precious urban wild space from becoming yet another warehouse repository or office park up for lease,” she told the BDN Monday.

Caporossi said his organization hopes to work with Portland Trails again to permanently preserve Canco Woods as part of the city’s networking of hiking and mountain biking paths.

“Preserving this sensitive ecosystem of woods and wetlands is a long-lasting investment in the environment and in the quality of life of the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the city of Portland, for present and future generations,” said Ben Bernard, president of Friends of Canco Woods, in a statement. “We are thrilled to be working with TPL and Portland Trails to make this happen.”

But hurdles still remain. Caporossi expressed cautious optimism when asked about raising $400,000 over the next five months. He said the timetable doesn’t allow for the groups to seek money through oftentimes time-consuming government grant programs.

“If we’re going to be successful, we’re going to have to rely heavily on individuals and foundations,” he said. “We’ve begun that process and have contacted individuals who have track records making donations for projects like this one.”

Caporossi said one anonymous donor has offered the group a $100,000 in matching funds if the organizations can raise $100,000.

“Obviously, to be successful, we have to do more than match it, but it’s a great incentive to kick this campaign off,” he said.

“The Canco Woods project is really unique, and it’s a great, great story to tell about this community coming together to protect this property that means so much to them,” Caporossi continued. “It’s kind of an urban wild land, if you will, and when I was last out there on a Tuesday, I saw 20 people recreating out there. For a weekday morning to see 20 people using that space, it just shows how appreciated this property is, and the protection of areas like that are something we really want to be a part of.”

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