The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust plans to buy a 57.2-acre property on Great Island with more than a half-mile of shorefront, most of it on Mill Cove. (JULIA MCLEOD/HARPSWELL HERITAGE LAND TRUST PHOTO)

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust plans to acquire 57.2 acres of woodlands on Great Island to protect water quality in Quahog Bay, a top conservation priority due to the bay’s vulnerability.

The property includes more than a half-mile of shorefront: 1,894 feet on Mill Cove and 754 feet on Orr’s Cove. The northwestern boundary runs along Harpswell Islands Road, across from Harpswell Community School. Tondreau Point Road and Birch Run travel through the land.

“The most critical conservation purpose of the project is to protect the water quality of Quahog Bay from the adverse effects” of development, according to an overview of the project by the land trust.

As many as 20-25 residences could fit on the property under shoreland zoning. Those properties’ septic systems would contribute to “nutrient loading” that degrades water quality, according to the land trust.

HHLT would open the property to the public for recreation, which it describes as a secondary aim of the project. The land would host “a marvelous public trail and a long one for Harpswell,” Executive Director Reed Coles said.

Other than gravel roads, the only development of the property consists of a cellar hole. Woodlands of “mixed species and mixed ages” cover most of the property, with 6 acres of “deciduous forested wetland” in the area near Harpswell Islands Road, according to the overview.

“These forests and wetlands filter and slow runoff into Quahog Bay, which is vulnerable to excess nutrient loading due to its shallowness, limited tidal flushing and dense shorefront development,” the document states.

The heirs of Anna M. Tondreau own the property. An appraiser set its value at $1.65 million, but the heirs have “a strong desire to see this family land conserved forever” and offered it to the land trust for $500,000, according to HHLT. “Their alternative is to sell it for development of residences, which would aggravate the excessive nutrient loading from which Quahog Bay suffers.”

HHLT estimates its total expenses at $560,000, with $40,000 to support long-term stewardship and $20,000 for transaction costs. HHLT and the property owners signed a purchase-and-sale agreement on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

The land trust’s description of the project expands on Quahog Bay’s vulnerability to development.

The bay’s narrow mouth and shallowness make for “limited tidal flushing,” which, in turn, leads to warmer waters and “a lesser capacity for oxygen.”

The bay saw dense development along the water before the adoption of shoreland zoning in the 1970s. The septic systems for those homes send “a significant amount of nitrogen” into the bay.

High nitrogen and low oxygen in the bay “adversely affect its water quality and the viability of its abundant marine resources,” the overview states.

Coles called the property “one of the largest remaining undeveloped pieces in Harpswell” during a presentation to the Harpswell Board of Selectmen on Thursday, Sept. 2.

The land trust will apply for a $265,000 grant from the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program to cover more than half of the purchase price. Coles asked the board of selectmen to sign a letter of support for the grant.

Board Chair Kevin Johnson, who lives on Great Island, welcomed the news.

“I know our shellfish harvesters will be happy to hear about this,” Johnson said, because pollution from runoff in the area keeps them off the clam flats much of the time.

Coles said that “an enormous amount of the shorefront of Quahog Bay” is closed to shellfish harvesting from May through September.

“This indicates that there’s a runoff issue from development there that contaminates, or potentially contaminates, the shellfish for human consumption,” Coles said. “What we’re doing, we hope, will prevent that from getting any worse.”

Neighbors of the property expressed support for the property’s conservation, along with concern about where the land trust will build a parking lot. At least some of the neighbors want the lot on Harpswell Islands Road, rather than Tondreau Point Road.

The land trust’s “strong preference” is to build the parking lot on Harpswell Islands Road, Coles said, but it does not yet know whether it can and will not determine the location until it finalizes the purchase.

“When we do own the land, we’re going to conduct a thorough exploration of the alternatives for parking,” Coles said. The land trust will consult the neighbors as part of that process.

Jim Ragonese was one of the neighbors to speak against a parking lot on Tondreau Point Road.

“It’s a very, very narrow road,” Ragonese said. He also expressed concern about traffic safety at the intersection of Harpswell Islands Road and Tondreau Point Road, as well as hikers wandering off the trails and onto private property.

Another neighbor, Bob Dittrich, thanked the family for enabling the preservation of the land. “I don’t know that I would be able to make the sacrifice that you guys are making and the contribution to the town and to all of us,” Dittrich said.

The board voted 3-0 to sign the letter of support for the grant application, a move met by applause from the neighbors.

The Harpswell Conservation Commission will submit a separate letter of support. The commission considers the property high-value conservation land due to its location in the Brickyard Watershed focus area of the 2009 Harpswell Open Space Plan. The plan mentions the area’s freshwater wetlands, which protect Quahog Bay; and the habitat it provides for tidal waterfowl and wading birds.

The purchase-and-sale agreement gives the land trust two years to raise the money. “Hopefully we’ll close in 18 months to two years,” Coles said.

Coles expects an answer on the $265,000 grant application by the end of the year. After the land trust submits that application, it plans to apply for multiple smaller grants, then begin to raise funds from individuals.