HOPE — Valuable waterfront land in Hope has become the focus of a knotty dispute, with one town leader questioning if someone tried to pull a fast one to lift shoreline building restrictions on the Lermond Pond parcel.

The outcome of the contest over William Leppanen’s 18.5 acres off Easy Lane could impact, for years to come, residential development and the wellbeing of wildlife along the 173-acre pond’s more than five miles of scenic shoreline.

“I feel they were deceptive,” Planning Board Chair Molly Luce said at its Sept. 7 meeting in reference to a July session when Lappanen’s attorney presented his client’s request to change the land’s zoning designation to less restrictive zoning.

That presentation, two months past, and its aftermath clearly did not sit well with the board.

Indeed, moments after her remark, Luce and her four colleagues voted unanimously to rescind their July 6 approval of Lappanen’s request to reinstate his parcel’s prior status of rural residential zoning.

That message will be relayed to the Select Board and Leppanen has the right to appeal to that body, Town Administrator Samantha Mank said.

Leppanen’s attorney, Cameron Ferrante, in the Portland office of the Preti Flaherty law firm, said Monday morning Sept. 20 that he was unaware of the reversal and was not notified the matter was on the planning body’s recent agenda.

He doubted his client knows about it and said he’d contact him, and they will have to “review our options.”

He said the reversal impacts a good portion of the parcel, basically it’s entire shoreline and inland 250 feet.

At the Sept. 7 meeting, Mank steered the board specifically to clearly explain in writing the reasons for its reversal in the form of a “finding of facts.”

That sort of document is widely proffered as evidence of legally acceptable and defendable reasoning in the event a municipality’s actions are challenged in court.

The shoreline restrictions, meant to protect water bird habitat, were mandated by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, proposed by the Select Board as new law, and approved by Hope voters 2014.

Luce’s reference was to 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 changes imposed more restrictive zoning on the habitats of waterfowl and wading birds.

At issue is whether Leppanen’s parcel is or is not in that zone. If so, the ability to develop is severely restricted, compared its former rural residential designation.

Luce acknowledged it’s a sticky issue and one that not even the state experts seem to be certain about.
“This is what upsets me about the whole situation,” she said. “How are we, who are just regular people here, supposed to make that (boundary) line and that decision when (state officials) don’t even know what that line or decision is?”

Ferrante in July, and in documents given the town, cited state wildlife and environmental rules and came armed to the previous meeting with emails from DEP and MDIF&W officials, input from a private land-use consulting firm and official state maps showing the pond, the parcel, and the habitat boundaries.

All was proffered as proof that his client’s land had, in fact, been officially removed from the protected zone when the state changed boundaries. Ferrante asked the Planning Board to amend the more restrictive zoning ordinance and reinstate the rural residential designation.

He noted in a June 1, 2022, letter to the city that his client was never notified and therefore was unaware of any of the changes.

Granting Leppanen’s request, he wrote, “would be in the interest of fairness.

“Based on a review by its regional biologists, DIF&W has revised its official map to relocate the boundaries of waterfowl and wading bird habitats on the lower portion of Lermond Pond.

“The map reveals that much of Mr. Leppanen’s property is no longer within 250 feet of any moderate or high value waterfowl or wading bird habitat,” he added.

The Sept. 7 meeting began with a presentation by DIF&W biologist Steve Walker on habitat and wildlife protection in general.

His relevant conclusion was that “Towns have the ability to put whatever (land) they want in resource protection (zones)…towns have that flexibility through statute…to be more protective than what the law, the minimum guidelines, require.”

He continued, “If protecting this water body is important, you have the ability to keep that (land) in resource protection even if by state statute it isn’t required to be.”

In his June letter, Ferrante also said that Leppanen had been paying taxes based on the rural residential zoning, which are higher than for the shoreline zone.

If the land is actually in the protected zone, his client has been overpaying property taxes since about 2015, the attorney wrote. He confirmed Sept. 20 that Hope has acknowledged the overpayment.

A review of real estate websites suggests Leppanen was billed and paid an estimated $40,000 over the period in property taxes for the parcel and its three-bedroom, one bath house. The same sites suggest a current estimated market value of from between $480,000 to $709,000.

Luce and several colleagues were not happy with Ferrante’s presentation two months earlier and suggested at the recent session that they have learned a lot since then and no longer agree with his conclusions or their original approval.

Luce characterized the meeting as “feisty” and “hair-raising” and suggested that, given what she now knows, she felt like someone was not being straightforward with the board.

“What they presented to us was not on the up and up…it really wasn’t,” she said.

She conceded too that, “I did not understand a lot of what was going on” at the July meeting.

Board Vice Chair Blaine Richardson agreed that session was problematic. “We were all sort of shooting from the hip at that last meeting, taking this guy’s word for it.”

He and Luce voiced strong commitments to protecting the land and were the most vocal in objecting in retrospect to the whole idea of reinstating Leppanen’s old zoning status.

Luce said she believes the town has the authority to do what it deems best regardless of the landowners’ wishes.

“So,” she asked, “do we just please the landowner? I am one hundred percent for landowners. But I am also one hundred percent for protecting our land.”

She and Richardson noted that the ordinance in question is already in effect and so no further planning board action is needed other than to notify the Select Board by letter, explaining their reasons for rescinding the prior approval — as Mank had advised.

Board member David Hall opined that “starting to make any exceptions (to the shoreline protection law) leaves the board very vulnerable to the next landlord 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 the resources.”

He said the land is “clearly in resource protection,” and then raised an ominous note about future development.

“It’s all about development on the lake, period. The Leppanens aren’t doing this because they are not looking down the road,” Richardson said, later adding, “Obviously they want to do something that jeopardizes resource protection.”

He said, “This lake property is priceless…the lakes just are not going to handle that kind of development…the whole character of everything changes.”

Luce said that for her to agree to remove the protective zoning “there has to be a damn good reason, and I don’t see a good reason here.”

Richardson concurred and indicated he was unconvinced by the Leppanen presentation.

“We don’t have to come up with why we want to keep it, the ordinance is the ordinance. The burden of proof is on the landowner coming in and irrefutably saying that your (boundary) line is arbitrary and capricious and this is why,” he said.

“It’s pretty clear they did not present enough evidence to warrant a change, it’s that simple.”