FREEPORT — The concept of active living is basically benign. Pretty much everyone, regardless of how active they are, can endorse running and biking and incorporating physical fitness into one’s daily routine.
Spending taxpayer money on active living infrastructure is a whole other question.
Despite assurances from the Planning Board that the Active Living Plan drafted by the town’s volunteer Active Living Task Force is merely a visionary document and not a mandate for spending, citizens expressed concerns last week about the potential adoption of the plan into Freeport’s Comprehensive Plan.
“While active living may be a lifestyle for some, it’s not a lifestyle for all,” resident Guy Petrucci said during a public comment period at the Planning Board’s May 7 meeting. “What can Freeport afford and what will the public have the will to pay?”
The Active Living Task Force was formed in 2012 and charged with assessing the town’s walking, biking and hiking infrastructure and developing a plan that supports the comprehensive plan while acknowledging resource constraints.
After holding dozens of meetings and a pair of public forums, and hiring a consultant with funds appropriated by the Town Council, the task force delivered a draft of its plan to the council in February. It includes a variety of modest and major goals, from increasing bike signage to building a footbridge across Interstate 295.
Now, the Planning Board has been asked to review the plan and recommend to the council whether to adopt it into the town’s Comprehensive Plan. That process includes several steps, including a public hearing of the Planning Board, set for June 10; review by the Town Council, which would have to schedule a public hearing of its own to move forward, and certification of the plan by the state.
Many of the residents at last week’s meeting voiced support for the plan, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety about the use of public funds.
“I think there’s many good things in the Active Living Plan, but … I do have some concerns about costs down the road, particularly in light of the fact that we are going to be dealing with school (renovation) costs coming up,” Roben Voigt said.
Petrucci and others wondered whether the plan’s vision of Freeport as a destination for active living is shared by residents. He questioned the stress an influx of active tourists could put on public lands, and noted that, even if some of the plan’s projects are funded through grants, the taxpayers could be left with the bill for maintenance and upgrades.
“How active do the residents of Freeport need to be?” Lucy Lloyd, secretary of the Save Our Neighborhoods Coalition, said in an email the day before the meeting. “There are many families actively working to make a living and supporting the schools and community in which they live and play. To add costly projects to the agenda that will increase our town budget beyond what the residents can afford is not what this town needs.”
The plan’s supporters cited its health and safety benefits, and noted that having it as part of the Comprehensive Plan would increase opportunities for grants to fund the projects. Town Planner Donna Larson called the document a 20-year plan.
“It’s a global movement and it’s recognized that money spent on active living and lifestyle changes, on safety, it’s money well spent,” said Barney Baker, a member of the task force. “It reduces health costs. It’s like a 401K plan. … You’re going to reap the benefits later on.”
Katrina Van Dusen, executive director of the Freeport Conservation Trust, said, “We dared to dream how our town could be safer and more accessible for everyone.”
While the Planning Board seemed largely receptive to the plan, members stressed that a recommendation to the council to adopt it into the Comprehensive Plan doesn’t have anything to do with how or when the plan is funded.
The Town Council has said little to date to suggest it would fund the plan, in part or whole, publicly.
“I see this very much as a visionary document and not a budget line for the town,” board member Greg Savona said. “Just because it’s in this plan doesn’t mean it’ll happen. … I don’t feel like just by moving ahead and continuing to look at this that we’re adding to peoples property taxes automatically.”