YORK, Maine — The majority of those at a public forum on the Davis land were clear: selectmen should not box voters into a particular use of the property if its purchase is on the November ballot as anticipated.
About 50 people attended the forum Monday, called by the Board of Selectmen, and nearly half gave public comment. The “listening session” was held after residents May 18 voted 2,831 to 1,309 in favor of the selectmen entering into negotiations with the Davis family for purchase of the 109-acre parcel on York Street for $7 million to $8 million.
If the town does not buy the land, it will be developed into a condominium subdivision of more than 100 units. That plan is well on its way to final approval by the town’s Planning Board. Selectmen, joined by the Budget Committee, held the forum to see what residents wanted for use of property if the town were to buy it.
Selectmen met in executive session beforehand, and voted when they came out to expend up to $10,000 for a real estate matter discussed behind closed doors. There was no hint in the motion of what that money would be spent on. However, later in the forum, Selectman Liz Blanchard said the money would be spent on an appraisal of the Davis property.
Chairman Todd Frederick declined to talk further about the matter after the meeting concluded. In 2014, when voters were similarly asked in a nonbinding question if they wanted to buy the property for $5 million, the town had an appraisal done that indicated the land was worth $1.5 million. However, that was before its developable value was established and without egress onto York Street and Raydon Road, which would be included this time. Moreover, property values have risen in town since that time.
This development concerned Joey Donnelly of York Village Future, formed to support the town’s purchase of the property, who said Tuesday the town’s appraisal in 2014 “was exceedingly low, and hampered any serious negotiations between the town and the family. This time the town needs to have a much fairer appraisal.”
Donnelly was among those who spoke at the forum in favor of buying the land, then determining what to do — at least until after an overhaul of the town’s comprehensive plan, a process that will involve the community and is expected to take at least two years. He said if selectmen put specific language on the ballot that the land is to be used for municipal use or workforce housing, for instance, they will divide the vote.
“I see this piece of property filled with possibility,” said resident Tracy Keirns. “It’s very short-sighted to determine what we’re going to do with it in three months. I am terrified that if you put a building or an idea on the ballot with this purchase, because that idea comes with a price tag, we will not get this. An idea will turn into an opposition strategy, an ‘us versus them,’ and it will split the vote.”
“What we do with the land will influence the future of York,” said resident Gail Gilchrist. “The decision should not be hurried. I ask you to think long term. This land is too important to consider anything else.”
This view had widespread support among many at the forum, including Budget Committee Chair Nan Graves. Speaking, she said, as a resident, she reminded the group of the implications to the town of sea level rise. “We don’t know what is going to happen in 20 years. I really want the town to consider holding it. We may need it for a high school or a fire station. This property could well be our ace in the hole.”
Several residents offered a cautionary note.
“I would be concerned that the town hall would be turned down again” if money is spent on the Davis land, said resident Joan Jarvis. “Something very important to look at is how much money will citizens be willing to spend” in addition to the Davis land purchase for a town hall, another big-ticket project.
Dave Emery worried the town is “land rich” and this purchase would add to that. He said he knows the town has been actively selling excess property and appreciates that. But he said it’s imperative for selectmen to come up with a “short-term plan” of what the Davis land would be used for.
“Short term, I think a lot of questions have to be answered,” he said. “What are we going to do with it?”
Emery mentioned that most people in the room were older and wouldn’t be around in 20 years, and the younger residents would inherit this land. That rang true for Victoria Knoepfel, a young woman who lives in York and works at Stonewall Kitchen. She said she walks in that area every day: “I am very concerned about it being developed, mostly due to population density. It’s super valuable in many ways.”
Heather Campbell, a Budget Committee member and young mother committed to living in York, said, “What we need are choices. By buying the Davis land, it gives us choices. This is one of those deliberate decisions that we have to make as a community. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the future.”
Selectmen are expected to discuss the matter at their June 10 meeting.