AUBURN — The city turned down a petition to close a section of Butler Hill Road after a landowner said he planned to put his 270 acres into conservation if the closure was approved.
The City Council voted 4-3 against the petition during a final reading Monday, with the majority of councilors arguing the road is an important shortcut between Minot and Auburn that alleviates traffic on nearby Hatch Road.
Those in favor of the closure, including petitioner and landowner David Haines, said the dirt road is dangerous, and could instead be used to access a new recreational area. He had the support of three councilors and the Androscoggin Land Trust, which said Monday that it supported the closure.
While some said there was no guarantee that Haines would gift the land following a closure, he told the council Monday that he had intended to have a conservation easement ready before the meeting. He said he has lived there for 50 years, and is not trying to “close it off for my own private camp.”
Haines, who said he first came to the city with the idea five years ago, is the sole owner of all land abutting the sections of the road he petitioned to close. He said he does not want a future easement to be bisected by a dangerous road, but said he would still consider conserving the land.
“I’ve been working to improve this land for people and wildlife for half a century, and my heart is in sharing it,” he said. “With an easement to the land trust I can share it for long after I’m gone.”
He told the council that because it is in a rural location and dark at night, illegal activity occurs there, including dumping and drug activity. He sought to grant the city an easement to build a turnaround for city trucks, and said he’s been working on an easement with the land trust.
City staff said there would also be a maintenance savings from the closure, “as there will be virtually no traffic on the road after the closure so grading and winter maintenance will be decreased.” Several people said they recently drove through the location, and found that going around Butler Hill Road only took about two minutes longer.
Aimee Dorval, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said granting the easement for public access, trails and recreation “would support the overall well-being of the Auburn community.”
She said if the road is closed, it creates “one continuous tract of acreage” that could compliment other nearby recreation in Auburn that has become a draw.
Auburn resident Dana Staples said the recreational land fits in with the city’s sports tourism goals, adding, “what better place to play than in 270 acres.”
However, Councilor Belinda Gerry, who voted against the closure, said she doesn’t believe recreation opportunities go away if the road stays open, and said a closure would impact commuters and businesses in Minot and Auburn. She said if given the land, the city may want the road open to allow easier access to the parcel.
Mayor Jason Levesque said Tuesday that there are still a lot of questions surrounding the issue, including what a future conservation easement looks like. He said he received a lot of calls during the process from residents who wanted the road to stay open.
He also said he’s “never really heard of complaints” regarding safety on the road.
During the meeting, Councilor Katie Boss said she saw a “very stark difference” between what the city gains and loses by closing the road, stating a chance to obtain 270 acres for recreation does not happen frequently.
Councilors Boss, Holly Lasagna and Tim MacLeod voted in favor of the closure.