FREEPORT — After the initial shock of an almost $300,000 environmental permitting process for sports fields proposed on Hunter Road, the town is now seeking alternatives and hoping to reduce cost.
Town Engineer Albert Presgraves met with state Department of Environmental Protection officials last week and discussed alternatives that would meet the department’s standards, but hesitated to put a new cost on the project.
“It’s going to cost something more than zero,” Presgraves said Monday. “The important thing is that DEP is going to be flexible about how we meet our storm-water requirements.”
With the alternative plans, Presgraves said, they hope to create additional parking space for the fields.
“We should be able to get additional parking for the site, which is needed,” he said. “Because we’re going to get benefit, some cost for storm-water treatment seems reasonable.”
Development of the athletic fields, which are now generally used for soccer but also accommodate other sports, was debated at length in February by the Town Council. In the end, the council blocked zoning changes that would have allowed a plan by the Topsham-based youth soccer club Seacoast United to develop 12 acres of the fields for an indoor and outdoor sports complex.
Despite the council’s action, the proposed project, and minor development of the land by the town afterward, triggered a state environmental review for a site permit.
The council had the choice to either pay for the permitting, with initial consulting costs that excluded construction at a maximum of $40,000, or divest their interest in the land and give it to Regional School Unit 5.
The transfer to RSU 5 would have removed the need for a permit, which is only required if a single entity owns multiple pieces of contiguous land, creating a “common scheme of development.”
But in July, councilors killed the land transfer, voting 6-1 against transferring the seven-acre section of the 60-acre parcel to RSU 5. This action saved the property for the town, but also obligated it to pay for the environmental permit.
The town-owned land, adjacent to the Hedgehog Mountain recreation area and the town transfer station, is made up of two sections developed for athletic and recreational use, with an undeveloped center section.
The council sought an extension for the permit at a July meeting and had hoped to become a state-sanctioned environmental protection delegate. This move would have given the town permit-granting authority and the ability to conduct environmental reviews, dramatically lowering costs.
But the deadline to become a delegate for the project had already passed.
The latest cost estimate, which covered the DEP permit fee, consulting for the permit application and construction of a storm-water retention pond, was $270,000 and would have likely pushed $300,000 with legal and other costs, Council Chairman Jim Hendricks said.
“I was a little shocked by that one,” he said about hearing the estimate last month. “From what we were told by the consulting engineer and the town engineer is that there’s no problem to fix. At best we might be slightly improving runoff.”
The next proposal for the permit application, which is in the conceptual stages right now, will likely be less expensive, according to said Mark Bergeron, director of the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation. But it would still include some form of storm-water filtering system, such as a rain garden.
Bergeron said the only way for the town to avoid the costly permit would be to divest ownership or decide to not develop the land any further. Even without the extra parcel, he said, the town is close to the developed land-area threshold that triggers permitting.
Although there is no hard deadline for the application to be complete, the town and DEP will review a preliminary application in mid-January or early February, Bergeron said.
Hendricks said the council will probably discuss the fields and the permit at a meeting in January.
“A good outcome would be hopefully a lesser price tag and hopefully improve on the property with more trails, parking or a connector road to the other fields,” Hendricks said, noting those were some of the ideas from a September community planning session. “Hopefully we’ll be able to accomplish one of those items.”