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Brunswick base redevelopers on drones, Oxford Aviation: 'The decision is ours'

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Brunswick base redevelopers on drones, Oxford Aviation: 'The decision is ours'

BRUNSWICK — Mounting opposition to the type of businesses being recruited for Brunswick Naval Air Station was front and center Monday when the Town Council held a joint workshop with the organization charged with redeveloping the base.

The council called the workshop amid fears about the development of aerial drones at Brunswick Naval Air Station, as well as a potential lease agreement with Oxford Aviation, a Maine-based company with a questionable performance record, but strong political ties.

But if councilors held hopes of stopping the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority from bringing such businesses to Brunswick, those illusions were quickly dashed. 

"If five members of this board disagree with your decision, we would have no recourse to stop you, is that correct?" council Vice Chairman Benet Pols asked.

The response from MRRA director John Moncure was short and to the point.

"That's correct," Moncure said. "The decision is ours."

Moncure's comments drew nervous laughter among board and council members. However, members of an audience heavily populated with members of a local peace group were not amused.

"If this drone-zone proposal goes forward, Brunswick will become a lightning rod for protest," warned Bruce Gagnon, a member of Brunswick PeaceWorks.

In comments ranging between reasoned, emotional and conspiratorial, Gagnon and others criticized MRRA officials for considering making BNAS a research and development facility for drones. They also mocked previous assurances by MRRA and state Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson that the same drone technology currently used by the military to conduct airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan would also be used for benevolent uses, such as spotting whales and fighting forest fires.

One PeaceWork member said testing drones doesn't jive with MRRA's plans to convert part of the base into a world-class convention center and resort hotel. Others encouraged MRRA to focus on a planned renewable energy center, which they said was far more sustainable than manufacturing machines of war.

MRRA members sought to ease the peace group's concerns, saying no official proposal was on the table. Richardson, who is considered a potential gubernatorial candidate, made an effort to emphathize with the crowd, noting that as the former state House speaker, he was one of the few state lawmakers to oppose the war in Iraq.

"That was not a popular position at the time," Richardson said.

Nor, with some residents, is MRRA's role as the final arbiter on what businesses come to BNAS. That power was bestowed by the state Legislature in a bill that Richardson claims he helped draft. 

Although some councilors expressed concern that the MRRA's regional board membership might not represent the values of Brunswick residents, Richardson said the legislation was drafted in an effort to avert the town's "parochial" tendencies. Others argued that BNAS closure affected more than Brunswick, but the region and the state as well. 

Sandwiched between both arguments is a concern that MRRA board members are somehow beholden to political interests. Although communities affected by base closure can recommend individuals to serve on MRRA, nominations are made by Gov. John Baldacci. The nominations are then vetted by the Legislature's Business, Research and Economic Development Committee and approved by the Senate.

Although most nominations have gone through without a hitch, in the past some lawmakers – including Republican Sen. Jonathan Courtney of Sanford – have questioned the appointees' political allegiances and ambitions. 

Such concerns were the backdrop of Monday's meeting, which ultimately re-established MRRA's absolute authority in recruiting businesses. Still, MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque said the concerns of residents and councilors would be heard. He added that the base redevelopment plan was drafted by the public and approved by the Brunswick and Topsham legislative bodies. The plan, he said, was also the result of extensive public outreach. 

Councilor Debbie Atwood, who was one of the councilors who called for Monday's workshop, asked the majority of the council's questions. 

"I think 93 percent of what's going on out there is wonderful," Atwood said. "It's one or two things that I might have a problem with."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net