HOPE — Both sides in a simmering debate over whether waterfront land in Hope should be open to development or protected for wildlife appear ready to let voters decide.


The matter could impact future development decisions around the 157-acre Lermond Pond and along its more than five miles of shoreline.  


“I remain optimistic that the Select Board will approve a warrant article at its next meeting and put this issue to a vote of the town meeting,” Attorney Cameron Ferrante told The Camden Herald on Oct. 26.


Ferrante represents William Leppanen of Owls Head. Leppanen owns 17.5 acres off Easy Lane on Lermond Pond. It was placed in a more restrictive zone by the town in 2014 and he wants his original zoning restored.


Leppanen believes his property was mistakenly removed from less restrictive Rural Residential District zoning and placed in the town’s Resource Protection District, where it is subject to the wildlife-friendly Shoreland Zone Ordinance. 


The matter was decided in Leppanen’s favor by the Planning Board in July. Two months later that board, citing new information and alleged misleading input from Leppanen’s council,  rescinded its ruling with no warning to Ferrante or his client, according to Ferrante. 


The Select Board has reviewed the dispute once in the wake of the Planning Board’s reversal and will again, possibly as early as Nov. 8.


Ferrante believes the disagreement is the result of a mistake in a state map that has not been acknowledged by the planning body; he believes the Select Board sees the problem.


“My understanding of this matter is that the Select Board realizes that the inclusion of Mr. Leppanen’s property in the Resource Protection District is the result of an inaccuracy in the map of Lermond Pond developed by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and that it is currently consulting with the Town Attorney to review the language of the Town’s Shoreland Zone Ordinance and draft a proposed warrant article to remedy this issue,” Ferrante told The Camden Herald. 


Hope Town Administrator Samantha Mank said that because the matter involves changing a town ordinance, it would have to be put to voters at a town meeting. That could be done by the Select Board or via petition, she said.


The Select Board has sought legal advice on the matter and more information from state officials, according to Mank.


“I think they are being very, very careful to get all the information and consult with the attorney before making a decision one way or another,”  she said.


Indeed, during an Oct. 25 Select Board discussion of the matter, Chair Sarah Ann Smith suggested that neither the planning nor select boards have thorough experience in such matters.


Citing the large amount of technical information involved and the nuances of the various types of protected land categories, Smith offered that the Planning Board was doing its best “to do things right” when it acted on Leppanen’s request. She noted that three of its members are new to their roles, as are two Select Board members. 


“None of us are experts in the law dealing with shoreline resources and how it applies to the property,” she said.


The change that impacted Leppanen and others occurred in a 2014 rezoning by Hope. It placed all of Leppanen land along the pond under resource protection laws aimed at helping birds and shoreline habitats and strictly limiting what can be done on the land.


Ferrante has said that his client was initially unaware of the changes, in part because his taxes did not go down when the land was rezoned and he continued to pay the higher rate. The town has acknowledged the latter and refunds apparently were agreed upon.


“Much of Mr. Leppanen’s property is now undevelopable,” Ferrante wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to the Select Board. “Mr. Leppanen is prohibited from engaging in most construction, including construction of single or multi-family homes on the property. (He) cannot sell the property for development, as any purchaser would be similarly limited,” Ferrante wrote. The result is that the property’s value has been “greatly reduced,” he added.


The matter simmered for some time before the Planning Board sided with Leppanen after a presentation by Ferrante in July. Several board members later questioned whether they had been mislead.


In September, citing new information from state agencies, the board reversed itself. It sent its decision to the Select Board along with a 7-page “Findings of Fact” document detailing its reasons. 


Among them were “inaccurate or misleading” statements by Ferrante and “no evidence was provided that Mr. Leppanen’s property meets the definition of the Shoreland Zone Ordinance.”


In his written response, Ferrante said it was never his intent to mislead or misinform the board. “I regret both that they were left with that impression and that I did not have the opportunity to correct it,” he wrote.


However, the Planning Board’s conclusions are based on “misunderstanding of fact and law” and a misreading and misapplication of the Shoreland Zone Ordinance, Ferrante contended.


The board, he wrote, “evidently undertook its own review of this matter outside of a public hearing and without notifying myself or Mr. Leppanen of its concerns.”