Freeport gets explanation, apology, but little satisfaction about highway clear-cutting

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FREEPORT — Maine Department of Transportation officials on Tuesday said highway safety is the reason for the recent clear-cutting of trees along Interstate 295. 

Last month, trees were cleared along a six-mile stretch of highway from Freeport to Brunswick, which removed a natural sound barrier between I-295 and nearby homes. Trees were cut back to property lines, exposing many homes to the sights and sounds of the interstate, at a cost of $205,000.

There is no plan to offset the impact on those who live nearby, and the stumps and debris left behind are scheduled to be removed by the end of the month.

“If your community has issues, we’re sorry,” Dale Doughty, of MDOT’s maintenance and operations department, told a disgruntled crowd of about 50 people at Freeport Community Library.

Doughty and John Cannell, MDOT’s southern region manager, told residents and town councilors the trees were cut to improve sight lines for drivers, to allow more sun onto the road to melt snow and ice in the winter, and to make animals visible before they enter the roadway.

“We’re trying to give people better visibility in that corridor,” Cannell said.

Cannell and Doughty said there have been 182 crashes over the past three years in the stretch of the interstate where trees were cut; 37 percent were due to snow, ice, or animals. 

They said MDOT chose to increase safety for drivers rather than protect homes from increased noise.

“We always try to weigh the balance of the impact of any project,” Cannell said.

Town Councilor Scott Gleeson said Freeport is “very sensitive to noise issues,” and he wishes more would have been done to reduce the impact on residents.

Gleeson said he wonders if MDOT could have left some trees instead of going from a 75-foot deep vegetation buffer to no buffer. 

“Is there measurable data that would suggest a higher risk to motorists by leaving some growth, versus simply clear-cutting?” Gleeson said. “In other words, giving people that visual barrier.” 

Doughty said there probably isn’t “quantifiable data” regarding the risk if one or two lines of trees had been left.

Gleeson also asked why MDOT avoids disrupting wetlands and historic areas, but won’t do the same for neighborhoods.

“Why is that DOT doesn’t think to treat sensitive residential areas the same way?” he said. “If we’ll avoid a wetland area because we don’t want to destroy a habitat, I almost look at it as much of this area is real human beings’ habitats.”

Doughty and Cannell both said they understand the impact the tree clearing has had.

“I think in the future … I think in places where there are sensitivities, that we do need to work better,” Doughty said.

Both said they want to work on increasing communication and transparency in the future. 

Resident Joni Tompson, who has constructed a 250-foot-long fence in her yard to help reduce the noise, said she wished more thought had gone into the project before the clear-cutting occurred.

“I find it very frustrating that you folks did not take one step back and look at the neighborhoods and the people who are impacted directly,” she said.

Residents said they were concerned about not only the sight and noise of the highway, but also about air pollution and reduced property values.

Some said the clear-cutting has negatively the safety of children at the middle and high schools, because athletic fields are close to the highway. A few people, including two students, said it’s difficult to hear referees during games or teachers during recess.

People offered many possible solutions, such as replanting new trees, putting in other vegetation, or constructing a large, noise-containing wall.

“We have had a quiet neighborhood and I can’t even open our windows at night now,” Michelle Peacock said. “It’s so darn noisy.”

Cannell and Doughty said putting in vegetation wouldn’t be effective, although they said MDOT could possibly give the town an unspecified amount of money to plant new trees on the town side of the property line fence. Residents were skeptical that would work because of lack of space.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.