Loon Echo set to close on ‘Hill’

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — The Hacker’s Hill Campaign recently received a $10,000 fundraising boost — just weeks in advance of the purchase of a 27-acre tract to be set aside for public access. The closing date is June 14.

The Casco Fire Association handed over a check for $2,500 (money raised from Casco Days 2011) as well as continued pledges to total $10,000. When that money and the fire association’s promise was passed into the hands of Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) Executive Director Carrie Walia, clapping erupted from the sizable audience attending the Casco Board of Selectmen meeting on an Election Day evening.

Walia has reason to clap, curtsy and bow.

“In two weeks, Loon Echo Land Trust will become the proud new owners of Hacker’s Hill and a $100,000 mortgage on the property,” Walia said via an e-mail on Tuesday.

She added the mortgage must be paid off completely by June 2013 — a year after the impending land purchase.

The property was appraised at $700,000 — a price to which landowners Jeff and Conrad Hall were agreeable. LELT’s fundraising goal includes an additional $100,000 that would be set up as a perpetual care endowment fund. Also, there will be real estate expenses for surveys and paperwork fees, Walia said.

“We are enthusiastically anticipating the closing date after one year of successful community fundraising,” she wrote.

“Although, the thought of a continued capital campaign while simultaneously becoming managers of the property is a bit daunting,” she said.

“Thankfully, the Halls and their current caretaker, Don Fowler, have indicated that they will be available to assist Loon Echo this year to give our staff and volunteers the time to become acquainted with the property and their current management techniques,” Walia said.

On May 15, the Land for Maine’s Future board voted to release $220,382, hinging on a project agreement that will always allow public use of the property including hunting — “a focus of the state grant program,” according to Walia.

During last year’s Casco town meeting, voting residents rallied around the purchase of property on the mountain. Voters appropriated $75,000 toward the Hacker’s Hill land purchase. The allocated money is contained in the town’s land preservation account, which was set up almost a decade ago.

During a May 22 Casco Board of Selectmen meeting, board members asked for a legally binding guarantee that traditional uses would continue on Hacker’s Hill.

LELT had amassed a list of all the activities that people engaged in when they visited Hacker’s Hill, and those ranged from dog walking to weddings and family reunions, from watching and identifying birds to exploring snowmobile and cross-country ski trails.

“We wanted something in writing that would guarantee the use that was listed there — forever. We haven’t seen a signature,” Selectman Ray Grant said.

Later, Selectman Tracy Kimball mirrored Grant’s concerns, saying, “We are just wanting to protect our interests. We don’t want to release the money” and then have uses subtracted from the list.

Kimball asked for a clarification of what legal document could be drafted that would “let the board feel comfortable, and would protect the community’s traditional uses.”

According to Town Attorney Natalie Burns, the town could “do a letter agreement that would say these are proposed base uses and a provision” to give power of sanctioned activities to the selectmen.

“I think the board doesn’t want to see any uses taken away entirely. So, the list cannot have anything deleted without board’s permission,” Burns said.  “I don’t think it has to be very complicated at all.”

On Tuesday, Walia said attorneys representing LELT and the Town of Casco “are currently working out the agreement language that will confirm both parties’ desire to have the historic uses continue at the hill. The agreement will give LELT the flexibility to manage the public use guidelines and reasonable restrictions on the uses, (and) will require board of selectmen’s approval if any of the uses are proposed for removal in the future.

While the legal aspects are being ironed out prior to the land deal deadline, fun fundraising promises to take place after LELT takes over.

Loon Echo has in the works “several fundraising events this summer season, including a four-mile run and walk that will end at the top of the hill, and an acoustic music evening at sunset.”

She added that dates, times and other details would be available on LELT’s website “after the closing has taken place.”

To donate to the public land purchase, go to www.loonecholandtrust.org and click on “Hacker’s Hill project” on the left hand side of the webpage.