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Reed Coles: Leading HHLT to Success

One in a series of profiles of people who played a key role in the first 35 years of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

In 2005, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust had reached a crossroads.

After more than two decades of conserving property in town, HHLT had recently completed the highly successful Special Places Campaign that created Skolfield Shores Preserve on Harpswell Neck and Johnson Field Preserve at Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island. The organization’s first executive director, Thomas “Spike” Haible, was moving on to new career opportunities. There was momentum to maintain and an immediate need for new leadership.

Fortunately, the right person for the job was already close at hand.

Reed Coles had joined HHLT’s Board of Trustees in 2002 after spending a decade in the Maine House of Representatives. While in the Legislature, Coles served on committees overseeing natural resources and fisheries and wildlife, among others, and became fully immersed in the state’s environmental resources and the challenges facing them.

“It was an eye-opening experience, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed,” Coles recalled.

After leaving the Legislature, Coles served on various Harpswell town committees, including the Board of Appeals. He was also chairman of the Land Use Committee and helped rewrite the town’s comprehensive plan, which is still in place today. His knowledge of Harpswell is deep and so are his roots in the town.

Under Coles’ leadership, HHLT has become much more professional, thanks to a dedicated and very active volunteer board, and through achieving accreditation by the national Land Trust Alliance. The organization has grown from one to three staff members under Coles’ leadership. “We have grown our staff and our membership,” said Coles. “And we have continued to do what HHLT has done for 35 years – pursue additional land for conservation and public access.”

That effort has brought recognition.

“Reed has brought his lifelong love of the land together with organizational skills honed from many diverse experiences to build one of Maine’s premier land trusts,” said Tim Glidden, executive director of Maine Coast Heritage Trust. “Under his leadership and with stellar community outreach, energetic volunteers, and active education programs, HHLT has become a vital part of Harpswell’s civic infrastructure. I can’t imagine the town without it!”

Born in Massachusetts, Coles moved to Maine in 1952, at the age of 7, when his father, James Stacy “Spike” Coles left his teaching job at Brown University to become president of Bowdoin College. His family built one of the first houses at High Head, where Coles continues to live today.

“My father was a chemist and during World War II, he was at Woods Hole helping develop depth charges for the Navy. He took up sailing, which he taught to me,” Coles said. “It was a natural thing for me to pursue in the waters off Harpswell.” He continues to sail in the waters around Harpswell and beyond.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, Coles spent a decade working in public policy for the City of New York, negotiating with developers, at least one of them named Trump. It proved to be good preparation for process of land acquisition and conservation after Coles returned to Harpswell in 1979.

When he became executive director in December 2005, HHLT was operating out of a one-room office in the building that houses Homes & Harbors Real Estate on Orr’s Island. A search for larger quarters ended in 2006, when Bill and Jomay Barron donated 1.5 acres on Route 123 to the organization. HHLT’s permanent home was completed in 2007 and offers adequate office space, along with a community room and convenient parking lot used by various non-profit groups.

“The new building really gave us a more visible physical presence and a sense of permanence that matches our commitment to manage preserves and easements into the future,” Coles said.

Among his accomplishments, Coles cited effective use of the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program as a key tool in the acquisition of properties including Curtis Farm Preserve, Liberty Farm, White and Little Yarmouth islands and the Helen and Walter Norton Preserve on Birch Island.

HHLT Trustee John Boomer applauded Coles’ efforts during nearly 13 years as executive director. “Reed has worked tirelessly doing everything necessary to help HHLT become one of the leading land trusts in Maine. He encouraged the first major survey of our members to discover what they thought of the organization. And when the surveys were tabulated, he made sure that the results were used to improve the organization,” he said.

“The community survey we conducted in 2011 was a key moment,” Coles added. “It showed that we needed better outreach and more educational programs.” The survey sparked the hiring of Outreach Coordinator Julia McLeod and the expansion of public programs, Nature Day Camps, and educational programs for local school children, with the support of the Holbrook Community Foundation.

“People who have lived here or have been coming here for generations care very deeply about Harpswell,” Coles said. “Our success is due to their generous support.”

Looking toward the future, Coles said “there’s still a lot of land in Harpswell to preserve and protect.”