Workers stand on the top of Ellsworth High School as they remove old asphalt roofing shingles on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A Hancock County land conservation group will receive state funding to help finance its planned acquisition of 405 acres of undeveloped forest behind Ellsworth High School.

Frenchman Bay Conservancy has been awarded $283,000 in funds from the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program to help with the purchase of the property.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the total purchase price will be. Aaron Dority, executive director of the conservancy, said he expects it will be more than twice the amount that the state is contributing to the project.

The land, which has been owned for decades by members of the Whitney family, surrounds the high school on three sides and directly abuts sections of the walking and biking path that parallels the train tracks between North Street and Birch Avenue. A network of informal trails used by the local community for generations, including for local school cross country meets, wind their way through the property. There’s also a field and small skating pond off Hannah Way.

“Conserving Whitney Forest will permanently protect the largest remaining green space accessible by foot from Downtown Ellsworth,” Dority said. “It’s not only an incredible opportunity to protect habitat and canopy cover within the city’s urban zone, but also an important opportunity to ensure Ellsworth continues to be a place where people want to live, do business, and recreate outdoors.”

The conservancy intends to raise additional funds from other donors to supplement the purchase. Dority said he expects it will take a year to raise the funds needed to acquire the land, which has an overall assessed value of $134,000.

“We’re waiting on an appraisal,” he said. “At this point we are not sure what the purchase price will be.”

The property will be maintained as an official preserve with continued public access for walking, biking, horseback riding, skiing, and for outdoor education for Ellsworth High School students. Part of the land — 35 acres — eventually will be made available to the City of Ellsworth for development as residential housing.

Dority said the land that could be used for housing development is south of the high school and east of the rail trail, between Davis and Lejok streets.

Conservancy officials said that as the group has preserved properties in Ellsworth over the years, including Indian Point and Jordan Homestead, it also has sought to promote community investment in the city.

“Part of our vision is that strategic land conservation projects such as this should not impede economic growth, but instead, enhance quality of life for residents and attract new visitors,” the group said.

Other Ellsworth projects the conservancy is pursuing or has been involved with include the Branch Lake Public Forest, a new tree nursery at Jordan Homestead, and a planned rehabilitation of a neglected trail along the Union River behind the city library into a wheelchair-accessible path.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....