Celebrating our 25th anniversary has been something of a dud in this unusual year of 2020. At the changing of the year it's usual to take a look back, as well as forward, and so we're looking back 15 years, to 2005. That year, then President Brenda Buchanan wrote an article for The Island Times looking back from there at the Peaks Island Land Preserve's first 10 years. It's interesting to revisit the beginnings of our organization, and take a look at how things have changed, or not, as time has passed. Happy New Year!
LAND PRESERVE CELEBRATES TEN YEARS OF CONSERVING PEAKS
by Brenda Buchanan
It started with Battery Steele, the half-buried leviathan of a structure that over the years had become one of the defining cultural features of Peaks Island.
Built during WWII to house the big guns that protected the North Atlantic fleet, after the war the Battery passed into the hands of the Casco Bay Island Development Association and then to the Star Foundation, a non-profit group with an environmental bent.
One day in 1992, a Star Foundation guy said in passing to a curious islander that his group was contemplating selling Battery Steele. That comment set off a chain reaction that culminated in the 1995 purchase of Battery Steele by a group of residents who were willing to put their time and money into making sure the property would be controlled by Peaks Islanders forever.
Ten years later, the organization birthed by those who initially called their effort “the Battery Steele Project” is known as the Peaks Island Land Preserve (PILP). In addition to the Battery and its surrounding 14 acres, PILP owns or holds Conservation Easements on 10 more parcels. The acreage protected has increased more than tenfold, to about 144 acres, providing a nice balance on a densely developed 720-acre island.
On Friday, July 29, PILP will mark the tenth anniversary of the Battery Steele acquisition with a celebration at the Fifth Maine Community Hall. There will be ample food and drink, plenty of stories, good music and dancing with former Peaks resident Sean Mencher and his band. The evening’s program will include recognition of past board members, particularly the group that got it all started.
In a recent conversation, Tom Bohan, one of PILP’s founders, shared some history of the organization’s early days. Bohan reports that Jonathan Stevens was the inquisitive islander who walked into the Star Foundation’s office in Portland on a whim one day in 1992 and asked if there was a long-term plan for Battery Steele. John Crowley of the Star Foundation told him the group had abandoned its most recent idea to use the Battery for a commercial mushroom growing enterprise, and pretty much had decided to sell the property. This piece of news that prompted Stevens and a few others to immediately organize a meeting at the Community Center.
After some halting first steps, a rotating group that included Stevens, Bohan, Albert Presgraves, Tom Bergh, Terry Cline, Irene Church, Ralph Ashmore, Bill Jones, John Whitman, David Barringer, Henry Myers and Claudia Whitman began to meet once a week at the old senior center to plot their strategy. By the end of 1993, they had negotiated a purchase price of $70,000. In late 1994, they formed the non-profit corporation known as the Peaks Island Land Preserve and set about filing an application with the IRS to become a tax-exempt charitable organization. By mid-July, 1995, more than $44,000 had been raised and the Star Foundation agreed to take a promissory note for the balance on a short-term basis. To provide some backup, then-City Councilor George Campbell helped arrange a low-interest loan of $15,000.00 from the City. After much eleventh-hour scrambling, ownership of the property was transferred to PILP on July 19, 1995.
The first Annual Meeting – a picnic attended by more than 100 people on the top of Battery Steele – took place eleven days after the closing. Some fast and furious fundraising followed. Oceanside Conservation Trust of Casco Bay offered a $5,000 matching grant, a challenge that was met quickly. Other “angels” emerged, offering no-interest loans to keep the momentum going. T-shirts featuring a picture of the Battery were sold in front of Feeney's. (Now Hannigan’s.) Then in 1996, the city converted its $15,000 loan into a gift, putting the fundraising effort over the top.
The protection of Battery Steele was an enormous step, and it and all of PILP’s subsequent accomplishments will be recognized at the ten-year anniversary celebration, when founding members will be honored for their foresight and all past board members will be thanked for their hard work. In addition to the Battery Steele acquisition, PILP will be celebrating the fact that land under PILP’s care now includes:
• An 3.6 acre parcel on Reservoir Road
• 98-acres of city-owned land in the middle of the island
• The strip of land between Seashore Avenue and the ocean along the Back Shore from Onway Avenue to Wharf Cove.
• Two and a half acres of woodland on the west (right field) side of the Ballfield
• The 20-acre parcel off Brackett Avenue where the Indian Trail is winds through the forest
• An acre and a half surrounding Echo Pond, known as Skillings Woods
• Several smaller parcels in neighborhoods around the island, providing green space in the village and wildlife habitat in the woodlands.
An active cadre of volunteers support PILP’s cause by participating in periodic clean-ups of various properties, clipping bittersweet and other invasive plants and educating the public about everything from tree identification to how to reduce the potential for forest fire. All of the organization’s efforts are geared toward protecting the open land and cultural features of Peaks Island for use by current residents and visitors as well as the generations to come.
Current projects include mapping Snake Alley for a possible trail easement and further collaboration with Oceanside Conservation Trust, including sharing legal and management responsibilities for the Daveis Sanctuary.
All who are interested in the history of the Peaks Island Land Preserve as well as its future plans are welcome to come celebrate at the annual meeting or to attend a board meeting, which are announced each month in both The Island Times and the Star.