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Reed Coles: Quiet Man of Generous Spirit

This year Harpswell Heritage Land Trust celebrates its 40th anniversary, a time to reflect on how much has been accomplished and to embrace the challenges ahead. Reed Coles is a central figure in the story. Looking back, it seems inevitable that Reed Coles would find his way to the land trust. He first arrived in Harpswell at the age of seven when his family rented a cottage on Harpswell Sound while their new home in Brunswick was renovated. He traces his lifelong interest in the natural world and the marine environment to having summered on the shore as a boy and teenager.

photo of Reed Coles

Reed Coles (Jane Davis photo)

After college and a decade working in New York City, Reed returned to Harpswell at age 34 and has lived here ever since. He became active in local issues and was elected five times to represent Harpswell, Georgetown, Phippsburg, and West Bath in the Maine State House of Representatives where he served on committees dealing with Maine’s environment and natural resources. When he left the Legislature, Reed continued his public service by serving on several town committees, including chairing the Board of Appeals and the Land Use Committee, which did the town’s land use planning before the town hired its first planner, and helping draft the town’s current comprehensive plan.

In 2001, Reed was recruited to help raise the money needed to acquire what are now the Skolfield Shores and Johnson Field Preserves. Following the success of that campaign, Reed joined the HHLT Board of Trustees in 2003 and became executive director in 2005, which means his involvement in the land trust spans 22 of the 40 years of its existence. In early 2022, he retired after 17 years as executive director, continuing for an additional year as lands & stewardship director. He fully entered retirement at the end of March 2023. As we reminisced on Reed’s decades of commitment to the land trust, we spoke with some of the many people who have worked with him through the years.

Mary Ann Nahf, a current trustee, traces her memories of Reed back to 1987 when the town undertook drafting a comprehensive plan. She was a trustee a few years later when the all-volunteer land trust saw the need to hire an executive director. They found that person in Spike Haible, who held the part-time position for five years, starting in 2001. Spike and Charlie Johnson remember those early days when the land trust was a “kitchen table organization.” In 2005, when Spike decided to move on, Reed became executive director.

In 2008, the Town of Harpswell undertook the creation of its first Open Space Plan, a detailed analysis of land and marine resources and what lands might be best conserved in their natural state to retain Harpswell’s natural character. Deirdre Strachan worked with Reed on the plan and recalls that “the committee depended on him for his ability to envision the future. His depth of knowledge of the town, its wildlife, and geography allowed him to conceptualize the relevant issues.” The plan was adopted at the 2009 Town Meeting and has helped guide HHLT’s decision-making ever since.

Charlie Johnson worked with Reed as the trust’s president for 8 years. He says of Reed, “He was always a good listener; always had time to meet with people in the community to hear their concerns.” Another strong reflection is Reed’s skill at triage. “Because it was a one-man job, he had to manage a lot of moving parts. He was always able to distinguish the urgent from the necessary, dealing with short-term needs without losing sight of long-term goals.”

In his 18 years, Reed worked with dozens of board members, perhaps most closely with a succession of board presidents. Dave Brown came to admire and depend on Reed’s “encyclopedic knowledge of legislation related to land trusts.” Like every person contacted, he made a point of Reed’s easy-going nature.

In 2022, Reed announced his desire to ease into retirement and encouraged his colleague Julia McLeod to apply for the position. Current President Wendy Batson recalls, “Few directors are willing to take on a new role that requires that they report to someone they used to supervise! Reed did so with such a sure touch — providing feedback when asked and leaving all the space a new director could want otherwise.”

Julia McLeod, HHLT’s current executive director, has worked closely with Reed since she came to HHLT in 2012. She notes something they have in common — strong feelings and an ability to disagree respectfully. She says, “We both have had strong opinions and sometimes disagreed… but we’d talk things out and return to work the next day to collaborate as colleagues.”

Reed has spent the last six months setting down his considerable knowledge of ecologically valuable lands in Harpswell, wrapping up active land projects, and, as he says, “getting around to collating information that he’s wanted to organize for years.” He leaves the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust in good hands with his successor, Patrick Otto, and the rest of HHLT’s staff and trustees. Harpswell is forever indebted to Reed Coles for his dedication, passion, and commitment to our shared environment.