FREEPORT — Divest or apply.
That was the message to Town Manager Dale Olmstead Jr. from Maine Department of Environmental Protection Project Manager Lisa Vickers regarding town-owned land between Hunter and Pownal roads to the west of Interstate 295.
If the town is amenable to transferring ownership of the athletic fields on Pownal Road to Regional School Unit 5, then it will avoid the need to apply for a site permit for development on what the DEP now considers a contiguous parcel of about 60 acres.
Olmstead said he may not agree with the department finding the parcels are part of a common scheme of development, but he doubts there is room for appeal and said the total permit application cost could be between $20,000 and $40,000.
With a 90-day period to reply to the letter from the DEP, Olmstead said town councilors will have to discuss and decide what steps to take.
However, he said he has already contacted RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh to see if the School Board remains interested in assuming ownership of approximately seven acres of fields used for football and other sports.
Welsh said the board was ready to take over the property three years ago when RSU 5 was formed, but the question will require renewed board and public discussion.
The town land, adjacent to the Hedgehog Mountain recreation area and town transfer station, is comprised of two sections developed for athletic and recreational use and an undeveloped center section.
Town officials and Topsham-based nonprofit Seacoast United had signed an agreement to develop about 12 acres and lease three more acres of the center section as a site for an indoor and outdoor athletic complex.
The complex would have required state environmental review for a site permit. In late February the council voted against a zoning change needed for the project to move forward.
In late March, local resident Marie Gunning asked the DEP to reconsider what oversight might be needed on the lands, in part because she said councilors had not responded to her prior requests for a more comprehensive environmental review of development in the area.
The DEP granted a storm-water management permit for construction of the athletic fields off Hunter Road last year. The fields are slated to open in early July.
State site permitting fees are about $8,800, but preparing the application for the state could cost three times that, Olmstead said. Those costs could increase if there is significant opposition to applying for the permit, he added.
While saying a site permit would be needed if the land remains in town hands, Vickers said town and Freeport Economic Development Corp. officials did not try to evade permitting issues.
“It is the department’s opinion that both the Town of Freeport and the FEDC did their due diligence in determining permitting requirements prior to the construction of the fields adjacent to Hunter Road. Further, the department does not believe that either the town or the FEDC acted with the intent to circumvent the department’s rules,” Vickers wrote.
Welsh said the district is in a good position to take over the Pownal Road fields and already maintains them. However, the board needs to have public discussions before acquiring the land, even at a minimal fee, she said.
Olmstead said the framework for transferring title for the Pownal Road fields was drafted in 2009. If councilors and School Board members are interested, the transaction could be done fairly easily, he said.
Olmstead said the town would insist the playground area at Pownal Road continue to be open for all public use.
If the land does not change ownership, Olmstead said a state site permit would cover any future development without having an expiration date.