FAA concerns force base garden proponents to regroup

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BRUNSWICK — The group hoping to bring world-class botanical gardens and a park to Brunswick Naval Air Station is reshuffling its plans to acquire property at the decommissioning military facility.

The Brunswick Park & Gardens group last week learned that the Federal Aviation Administration had voiced concerns over a proposal to build gardens and a park on the southwest corner of the base.

The proposal, touting 200 full-time jobs and 1 million visitors after build-out and several years of operation, had sought about 250 acres at the current BNAS golf course.

The golf course, however, is in the runway protection zone. According to MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque, FAA officials expressed security concerns about large numbers of visitors gathering beneath low-flying civilian aircraft.

“They were also concerned that the nature of the activity would attract more birds, which could be dangerous to air traffic,” Levesque said.

The group learned about the FAA’s concerns during a June 17 meeting with MRRA and town officials. Although the initial proposal for property on the southwest corner can’t be accommodated, the garden plan isn’t dead.

Herschel Sternlieb, who has been pursuing the garden proposal for several years, said Wednesday that the town has been receptive to allowing the park and gardens on the southeast corner of BNAS.

The town is slated to receive 1,200 acres through a no-cost property conveyance, including a large swath of undeveloped space south of the Armed Forces Reserve Center, near Route 24.

Sternlieb said a park and gardens would fit well in that area, where the town hopes to some day build walking trails to connect to the Town Commons on the west side of the base.

Sternlieb said the area is mostly undeveloped, which could scale back some of the group’s plans to plant about 20,000 trees for a “legacy forest” and community vegetable garden. However, he said, the location could ultimately work better for the plan because visitors could exit directly off Route 1, rather than navigate through downtown Brunswick to reach the west side of the base.

Sternlieb was also confident that the proposal would come to fruition. He said the project was a for-profit business that would attract visitors and put people to work.

“We’ll have it, one way or the other,” he said. “We’re not going away. We’ve been assured land will be made available to us. It’s going to be OK.”

Levesque said the group will work with the town to layout its business plan.

“They’ll have to show they have the financial capacity to make it work, just like they had to do with us,” Levesque said.

The group’s goals are ambitious.

In addition to 200 full-time jobs, Brunswick Park & Gardens believes it can create 400 seasonal jobs and “several thousand ancillary jobs” in nearby communities.

According to the executive summary of the proposal submitted to MRRA in May, the park would include a children’s garden, a museum and feature year-round activities such as apple picking, hiking, snowshoeing and maple sugaring.

“The facility will equal or better Butchart Gardens (in British Columbia), the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and the magnificent Dutch tulip garden in Keukenhof Hollad,” according to the summary.

During their proposal to the MRRA Board of Directors in May, group representatives said the project wouldn’t compete with the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, but rather, complement it.

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