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FREEPORT — After more than a year and half of debate, the Town Council on Tuesday night decided to obtain the environmental permits needed for the Pownal Road fields.
The permitting would allow minor development projects, such as some parking expansion, trail improvements and other small projects, although the town is not required to complete the projects even if it applies for the necessary permits.
Faced with the choice to divest all interest in the seven-acre parcel by possibly transferring ownership to Regional School Unit 5, or applying for the costly Maine Department of Environmental Protection permits, the council voted 4-1 to seek the permits.
“In no scenario that I’ve seen in talking with folks is that development not going to happen at some point,” Councilor Melanie Sachs said during the council’s discussion before the vote. “We should just spend the necessary money. We will never be sorry to have land. We can make better decisions with the piece as a whole, rather than fragmented.”
Permits and expected improvements to the property will cost the town about $121,000 for the entire 60-acre parcel, collectively known as the Hunter and Pownal roads fields. That cost covers the DEP fee, engineering fees and storm-water and water-quality upgrades, while allowing for expanded parking and minor trail upgrades.
The town could have avoided paying for any environmental permitting or improvements if it transferred ownership of the seven-acre Pownal Road field to RSU 5. That would have split up the five-piece parcel, eliminating a “common scheme of development” and eliminating the permit requirement.
Still, the tri-town school district would have had to accept the property, which could have potentially shifted some of the future costs to Pownal and Durham, which are part of RSU 5.
Initial costs for the permitting and upgrades varied widely, from early estimates of about $40,000 to nearly $300,000 late last year.
This is the second time in less than a year the council has voted against transferring the property to RSU 5. Last July, the council voted 6-1 against divesting.
The permitting process for the fields was prompted after the council blocked zoning changes early last year 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/outdoor sports complex.
The proposed project, and minor development of the land by the town afterward, triggered a state environmental review for a site permit.
Residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting were all in favor of keeping the property under the town’s ownership and paying for the necessary permits and environmental upgrades.
“Transferring ownership to the the RSU simply transfers costs,” Guy Quattrucci said. “Let’s not recast this discussion. … Attempting to circumvent our legal obligation is a public policy choice that should have never made it to the table.”
Many blamed the dilemma on the collapse of the Seacoast United proposal, which they said was mishandled, with the public being misled about how the costs incurred for the development were going to be covered.
“Somebody took a chance on that and it was a big chance because the deal with Seacoast wasn’t done,” resident Marie Gunning said. “It didn’t fit with state law, and it was really a risk, and now taxpayers are being told to pick up on this. … To sidestep the environmental review is baffling. I don’t understand that thought process.”
Councilor Kristina Egan cast the lone dissenting vote. She said transferring the property to RSU 5 would not affect the use of the fields.
“The Hunter Road fields have been haunting us; it’s been a community discussion for a year and a half,” she said, noting that people should not be blaming other parties for this situation. “We need to get over it. It’s not folks up here and we need to move on to make sure the fields continue to be used as they are. We need to be as fiscally responsible as we can in these times.”
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.
If the town does incorporate certain projects into the permits, they will have seven years to complete them before a new DEP permit is required, according to Town Engineer Al Presgraves.
Had the council not acted, DEP could have considered enforcement if no decision was made before March 13, Town Manager Peter Joseph said.
To plan for the permitting and to get input from the public about what kind of development they want to see at the fields, the council discussed holding another community planning event, similar to a previous gathering last September.