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Greenbelt plan update approved

By a 5-2 vote, the Town Council on Jan. 6, 2014 adopted the greenbelt plan update for 2013.

The plan includes a controversial proposal for a trail over Surf Side Avenue, a paper street in the Shore Acres subdivision.

Paper streets are streets that appear on subdivision plans, but have yet to be developed or accepted by the town as public ways. In 1997, the council voted to keep "paper street" status for the majority of unaccepted ways in town, including Surf Side Avenue, until 2017. As part of the greenbelt-plan adoption, councilors said they would in the future review and consider a separate resolution accepting all paper streets that contain greenbelt trails.

Not all who spoke at the Jan. 6 meeting believed the town has the right to place a greenbelt trail in a paper street. Attorney Robert Stier of Rock Crest Drive, representing neighbors opposed to the Surf Side Avenue trail, contended that the greenbelt already has trails on land that the town does not own. "How can the council be expected to accept this plan without first knowing that the town has the legal right to put trails where they currently exist?" Stier said. He suggested the council send the plan back to the Conservation Commission for further recommendation. The case of Surf Side Avenue, he said, is a neighborhood dispute, beyond the scope of a townwide plan.

The two councilors voting against the plan, Jamie Wagner and Caitlin Jordan, both said they were unsure the town had legal rights to plan for trails in paper streets. Wagner proposed deleting the Surf Side Avenue trail from the plan, but only he and Jordan supported the amended motion.

"I believe there are unresolved legal issues regarding the town's rights to build the conceptual trail," Wagner said. He said he did not believe historical use of the trail, reported by residents, was sufficient to establish legal rights for the town.

Jordan said she also had reservations about the town's rights, and any lawsuits sparked by the plan would not be in the town's best interest. She also said she did not agree with the Conservation Commission's assessment that the neighborhood is underserved by a formal trail network.

The plan is the latest update to the greenbelt plan first adopted in 1977, revised in 1988 and again in 2001. The greenbelt plan has evolved from a single trail from Fort Williams Park to Crescent Beach to a hub-and-spoke system of trails, all the while encouraging preservation of open space and scenic views.

Goals for 2013 update

The main focus of the 2013 update is to fulfill the potential of the greenbelt for the next decade. One criterion for trail location is expanded legal public access to trails in underserved neighborhoods. Another, as outlined in the plan, is the opportunity for trails where the town already has legal public-access rights; these could include town-owned land or easements, donated land, or paper streets. In addition to Surf Side Avenue, the plan identifies potential trails using other paper streets in Shore Acres, as well as some off of Mitchell Road near Columbus Road; off of Stephenson Street; and, near Forest Road and Ocean View Road in the Mountain View area.

"It should be noted that the final location of potential trails has not yet been determined. In some cases, paper streets are one of multiple options of where to locate the potential trail," Town Planner Maureen O'Meara said in a memo on current and potential greenbelt trails in paper streets. The memo identifies four areas where 2,500 feet of greenbelt trails currently exist within paper streets.

Before voting to adopt the greenbelt plan, Town Councilor Kathy Ray read an 11-point resolution outlining the update process, and Cape Elizabeth's history of preserving open space, pedestrian access and retention of paper streets. "Potential trails described within the 2013 Greenbelt Plan are intended as conceptual locations and will only be placed on private property with the willing consent of the property owner," reads point No. 4, which discusses the map of potential trails included in the plan.

The final point announced the council's intention to review and consider a separate resolution formally accepting all paper streets within which greenbelt trails are located. No timetable was given for the review.

Councilors voting in favor of the greenbelt update emphasized its role as a plan, a plan that develops over a long term. "It spells out a vision for preserving open space, for maintaining the town's rural character, for preserving wildlife habitat, and for giving residents access to trails connecting open space," said Councilor Molly MacAuslan. "I think it will serve as a guide for the (conservation) commission's stewardship responsibilities for the future," she said.

Councilor David Sherman said he disliked making unpopular decisions, but that he would support the plan. "At the end of the day I evaluate the issue in terms of what is best for the town of Cape Elizabeth and I think the inclusion of the Surf Side Trail in the greenbelt trail plan makes sense," he said.

The Conservation Commission began working on the greenbelt plan update more than a year ago. The commission devoted 14 meetings to the update, including two public forums and special meetings with the Cape Farm Alliance and the Riverside Cemetery Trustees before recommending the final update to the council. The Town Council also held six meetings, including two workshops, a site walk at Surf Side Avenue, and a public hearing on Dec. 9, 2013.