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A Land’s Journey

Mary Connolly
March 1, 2024
(When Land Becomes Part of a Land Trust — Part II)


Otter brook between the trees

Otter Brook Preserve (Priscilla Seimer photo)

This is a story about a journey. A land’s journey. One with many heroes pursuing a common goal despite tough decisions and challenges. And as with every story, there is a beginning, middle and end. This one begins when an opportunity to conserve land located in the Otter Brook Corridor Focus Area becomes available. Being a high priority focus area of the Town’s Open Space Plan, it is no surprise that the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) worked tirelessly to preserve its valuable wildlife habitat and natural resources.

Over the years, there have been a number of conservation partnerships between the Town of Harpswell and HHLT including the creation of HHLT’s Skolfield Shores Preserve in 2002 and the Hildreth Road Easement granted by the Town to HHLT in 2013. Recognizing and appreciating the unusually high conservation value of Otter Brook, former HHLT Executive Director Reed Coles and others began the arduous process of preserving the land.

In the Beginning: There are several ways in which land becomes part of a land trust. HHLT can purchase land; accept or raise funds to purchase land; accept land donations; accept the donation of a conservation easement; or purchase a conservation easement. Land can often be a valuable asset and compensation for its conservation may or may not be important to its owner. The land in this story was owned by Otter Brooks Farms (OBF) and the Alexander family. The 71 acres owned by OBF and the Alexander family added up to 3,300 feet along the west side of Otter Brook near the northern end. These two properties are uniquely positioned and critical to the preservation of local wildlife and water quality in several ways.

Firstly, because these properties are connected, they serve as traveling avenues or corridors for wildlife and provide important food sources for a variety of species. Secondly, the properties play a crucial role in a significant freshwater stream and pond system – a scarce resource in town. Otter Brook is one of the longest streams in Harpswell and helps protect the quality of the marine water and coastal marshes that give life to the fishing industry. Thirdly, it provides recreational activities including hiking, cross-country skiing and hunting for residents and visitors alike. As luck would have it, the heroes in our story preferred conservation over development and offered to sell their land to HHLT.

green marsh stretches out under blue sky

Otter Brook Preserve (Julia McLeod photo)

In the Middle: Selling land to a conservation organization generally takes a significant investment of time and energy. Land can be sold in a number of ways including at fair market value, a bargain sale, an installment sale, or an option to purchase. An organization may need time to secure the funding to pay for its acquisition and long-term stewardship. Purchasing land at fair market value is generally reserved for exceptional properties that face an imminent threat like development. And the price needs to be supported by an independent, licensed real estate appraiser. This helps ensure the integrity of the transaction for the donors and funders.

Funding for land conservation can be limited, but some money is available for land purchases, and occasionally land trusts will have funds to purchase properties for long-term conservation. In this story, HHLT needed to raise the funds. So, a campaign was launched to educate the public and potential donors about the importance of protecting these natural resources and the recreational opportunities associated with them.

In the End: You guessed it. In 2017, HHLT was able to raise funds from generous donors and the Town of Harpswell to purchase the properties at fair market value and protect it from development. However, the story doesn’t end here. Otter Brook Preserve is now home to wildlife and more than 1.7 miles of nature paths. It is a valuable, living resource and a wonderful place to explore and start a new journey.

To read Part I of this series, click here