BRUNSWICK — Advocates hope to preserve natural resources and try to meet the town’s need for recreation facilities in a new public park.
The 66-acre property, to be called the Capt. William A. Fitzgerald USN Recreation-Conservation Area, is a former U.S. Navy transmitter site off Old Bath Road. The property was conveyed to Brunswick by the federal government in 2011 as part of the decommissioning of Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Neighborhood residents who support the proposal see the area as a perfect place to realize a decades-long ambition to build sports fields to serve families in the eastern part of town, who have no nearby recreation facilities.
At the same time, conservationists want to preserve the site’s ecosystem, one of only a handful of sand plain grasslands that remain in the state.
But several questions surround the project, including its cost and what kind of activities will be permitted.
Since September, a committee made up of abutters, town councilors and members to the town’s recreation and conservation commissions have developed a draft master use plan for the property, to strike a balance between the two goals.
The committee released its proposal to a small group of residents in a public workshop Wednesday at the Emerson Fire Station on Bath Road.
According to the preliminary draft proposal, the park will include a perimeter walking trail, 15 acres reserved for two multi-use sports fields, a large parking lot, toilet facilities and a playground.
“That is a part of town that has no presence in terms of recreation facilities,” Parks and Recreation Director Tom Farrell said, noting that the town has been discussing sports fields in the area since the 1980s.
With the exception of a paved multi-use path, the remainder of the park would remain relatively wild, to preserve its sand plain ecosystem, which is designated critically imperiled by the state.
The fields provide habitat for dozens of species of threatened plants and animals, including birds like prairie warblers and meadowlarks, Town Councilor Steve Walker said.
Site management will include proscribed burns and tree removal to encourage growth of grasses, pitch pine and blueberry bushes, he noted.
Councilor David Watson said the site has important historical significance, including evidence of stone tools dating back more than 10,000 years.
While committee members seemed confident the Town Council and state regulators who need to sign off on the project will look favorably on the trade-off between conservation and new construction, residents on Wednesday raised several concerns.
Some questioned proposed prohibitions on the use of dirt bikes, off-road vehicles and hunting.
Chris Toothaker, who lives near the property, said there are popular ATV trails through the land and asked why the town would suddenly ban responsible drivers from using it.
“It’s really all that place is used for,” he said after the meeting.
Nelson Frost, who also lives near the property, said nearby residents have been hunting the in the fields for years, and argued hunting would not conflict with the town’s goals.
“Conservation is the wise use of natural resources,” Frost said. “If you don’t use that resource, than you’re not using it as a conservation area, you’re using it as a preservation area.”
Walker and Farrell both said rules about hunting in the area could be addressed, but motorized vehicle use is another issue.
Mike Thompson, an environmental consultant working on the project, noted that considering the rarity of the site, any proposal that included motorized access could give state agencies cause for concern.
Other residents questioned whether the area is the right place for sports fields, and wondered what the project would cost.
Jennifer Claster, a landscape engineer from Wright-Pierce, said there is no estimate yet, but costs would go beyond construction, including archaeological and endangered species surveys and permitting.
The town’s most recent capital improvement plan includes a $500,000 proposal for sports fields on the land.
Despite the need for facilities to accommodate young families in east Brunswick, Farrell, in his concluding remarks, was realistic about the pace of the project.
“The likelihood of these facilities being built in the near term is pretty remote,” he said, noting the town faces budget pressure and more urgent capital needs.
The committee intends to finalize a draft of its plan in late January and submit it to the Town Council sometime in February.