HOPE – Valuable waterfront land in Hope has become the center of a thorny dispute, with a town leader wondering if anyone is trying to pull a quick one to lift shoreline building restrictions on the plot of the Lermond pond.
The outcome of the competition on William Leppanen’s 18.5 acres off Easy Lane could impact, for years to come, residential development and wildlife welfare along the more than five miles of Picturesque shoreline of the 173-acre pond.
“I think they were misleading,” Planning Council chairwoman Molly Luce said at her Sept. 7 meeting in reference to a July session when Lappanen’s attorney presented her client’s request for change the zoning designation of the land to a less restrictive zoning.
This presentation, two months ago, and its consequences clearly did not sit well with the council.
Indeed, moments after his remark, Luce and his four colleagues voted unanimously to rescind their July 6 approval of Lappanen’s request to restore his parcel’s previous rural residential zoning status.
That message will go to the select committee, and Leppanen has the right to appeal to that body, city administrator Samantha Mank said.
Leppanen’s attorney, Cameron Ferrante, of the Portland office of the law firm Preti Flaherty, said Monday morning Sept. 20 that he was unaware of the cancellation and had not been told the matter was on the planning body’s recent agenda.
He doubted his client would know and said he would contact him, and they would have to “review our options”.
He said the inversion is impacting a good portion of the plot, meaning the entire coastline and 250 feet inland.
At the September 7 meeting, Mank specifically directed the board to clearly explain in writing the reasons for his cancellation in the form of a “finding of facts.”
This type of document is widely presented as evidence of legally acceptable and defensible reasoning in the event that a municipality’s actions are challenged in court.
The shoreline restrictions, intended to protect waterfowl habitat, were mandated by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, proposed by the Select Board as new law, and approved by Hope voters in 2014.
Luce’s reference was at the July meeting when Ferrante presented his client’s request to amend Hope’s zoning maps “to reflect recent changes” in state habitat rules. The amendments imposed more restrictive zoning of waterfowl and wader habitats.
The question is whether or not the Leppanen parcel is in this area. If so, the capacity for development is severely restricted, relative to its former rural residential designation.
Luce acknowledged that this was a tricky issue and that even state experts didn’t seem certain.
“That’s what upsets me about the whole situation,” she said. “How are we, who are just regular people here, supposed to take this (boundary) line and this decision when (state officials) don’t even know what this line or this decision is?”
Ferrante in July, and in documents given to the city, cited state wildlife and environmental rules and came armed to the previous meeting with emails from DEP and MDIF&W officials, contributions from a private land use consulting firm and official state maps showing pond, patch, and habitat boundaries.
Everything was presented as evidence that his client’s land had, in fact, been officially removed from the protected area when the state changed the borders. Ferrante asked the Planning Board to change the more restrictive zoning ordinance and restore the rural residential designation.
He noted in a June 1, 2022 letter to the city that his client was never notified and was therefore unaware of any of the changes.
Granting Leppanen’s request, he wrote, “would be in the interests of fairness.”
“Based on a review by its regional biologists, DIF&W has revised its official map to move the boundaries of waterfowl and wader habitats to the lower portion of Lermond Pond.
“The map reveals that much of Mr. Leppanen’s property is no longer within 250 feet of any medium or high value waterfowl or wader habitat,” he added.
The September 7 meeting began with a presentation by DIF&W biologist Steve Walker on habitat and wildlife protection in general.
His insightful conclusion was that “cities have the ability to put whatever (land) they want into resource (area) protection…cities have this flexibility through law…to be more protective than this as the law, the minimum guidelines, require”.
He continued, “If protecting this body of water is important, you have the option of keeping this (land) in resource protection even if state law doesn’t require it.”
In his June letter, Ferrante also said Leppanen had paid taxes based on rural residential zoning, which are higher than for the littoral zone.
If the land is in fact in the protected area, his client has been paying too much property tax since around 2015, the attorney wrote. He confirmed on September 20 that Hope had acknowledged the overpayment.
A review of real estate websites suggests Leppanen was billed and paid approximately $40,000 over the period in property taxes for the plot and his three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. The same sites suggest an estimated current market value between $480,000 and $709,000.
Luce and several colleagues were unhappy with Ferrante’s presentation two months earlier and suggested in the recent session that they had learned a lot since then and no longer agreed with his conclusions or their initial approval.
Luce called the meeting “feisty” and “hair-raising” and suggested that, given what she now knows, she felt like someone was not being upfront with the council.
“What they presented to us wasn’t on the upside…it really wasn’t,” she said.
She also conceded that “I didn’t understand much of what was going on” at the July meeting.
Board Vice-Chair Blaine Richardson agreed that the session was problematic. “We were all shooting from the hip in that last meeting, taking this guy at his word.”
He and Luce expressed their strong commitment to protecting the land and were most vocal in retrospectively opposing the whole idea of restoring Leppanen’s former zoning status.
Luce said she believes the city has the power to do what it sees fit, regardless of the landowners’ wishes.
“So,” she asked, “are we just making the owner happy?” I am one hundred percent for the landowners. But I am also one hundred percent for the protection of our earth.
She and Richardson noted that the ordinance in question is already in effect and therefore no further action by the planning board is necessary other than to notify the restricted board by letter, explaining the reasons for the cancellation of the ordinance. prior approval – as Mank had advised.
Board member David Hall said ‘Starting to make exceptions (to the Shoreline Protection Act) makes the council very vulnerable to the next owner asking for another exception.’
Richardson added: “David’s point is very good; once you let the Genie out of the bottle you’re screwed…the reason we have shoreline zoning and resource protection is to protect resources.
He said the land is “clearly in resource protection” and then raised a worrying note about future development.
“It’s a matter of development on the lake, period. The Leppanen don’t do this because they can’t see the road,” Richardson said, later adding, “Obviously they want to do something that compromises resource protection.
He said: “This lake property is priceless…the lakes just aren’t going to handle this kind of development…the whole character of everything changes.”
Luce said that for her to agree to remove protective zoning “there has to be a damn good reason, and I don’t see a good reason here.”
Richardson agreed and indicated that he was unconvinced by Leppanen’s presentation.
“We don’t have to figure out why we want to keep him, the prescription is the prescription. The burden of proof is on the landowner who comes forward and says incontrovertibly that your (boundary) line is arbitrary and capricious and that is why,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear that they haven’t presented enough evidence to justify a change, it’s as simple as that.”
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