FREEPORT — Despite a light agenda Tuesday night, the Town Council found plenty to discuss.
After moving quickly through the short list of action items on the agenda, which included appointing an election warden for the Dec. 4 special council election and acting on two tax items, councilors zeroed in on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s permit requirement for the sports fields on Hunter and Pownal roads, west of Interstate 295.
Town Engineer Albert Presgraves and environmental consultant Al Palmer, of Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers, reviewed where the town stands in the permitting process and noted that the cost of the permit has increased to an estimated $270,000, dramatically higher than earlier estimates of $40,000.
Palmer said that although DEP is requiring the permit, his review of the property has not revealed any problems with storm-water runoff from the fields.
“The law (that prompts the review) was not written to address this kind of project,” Palmer said, noting that, although the town is only planning to develop a small portion of the land, the fields are considered part of a common scheme of development, forcing the permitting process for the entire parcel. “We don’t see any signs of too high runoff into the streams. From a quantity standpoint, there’s no issue.”
Historically, DEP has not given any relief for permitting this kind of project even though no water quality problem exists, Palmer said, noting that this has happened before with fields on school campuses.
Earlier this year the council had the choice to either pay for the permitting or divest their interest in the land and give it to Regional School Unit 5. In July, councilors voted 6-1 against transferring the land to RSU 5, saving the property for the town, but also obligating 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 portion of the property the town voted to keep is a seven-acre section of a 60-acre parcel. The fields are already in use as athletic fields.
The permitting process was triggered after town officials and Topsham-based soccer club Seacoast United signed an agreement to develop about 12 acres and lease three more acres of the center section for an indoor and outdoor athletic complex.
The complex would have required state environmental review for a site permit. However, in late February, the council rejected a zoning change needed for the project to move forward.
The council sought an extension at its July meeting and had hoped to become a state-sanctioned environmental protection delegate, giving the town permit-granting authority and the ability to conduct environmental reviews at much lower costs. But, the deadline to become a delegate for the project had already passed.
Council Chairman Jim Hendricks Tuesday said he didn’t understand why a permit would not be needed if the town transferred ownership to RSU 5.
“In my mind it’s a bad law, if that’s how it works,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re giving it to your brother, sister or your RSU. If there’s no change, it shouldn’t matter.”
Other councilors echoed his concerns.
Councilor Kate Arno said she did not want to move forward with the permit because of the cost.
“I don’t believe we should pay $270,000 if we don’t have an environmental problem,” Arno said. “It would be different if we did, we want to do the right thing.”
Although he said he is not promoting the transfer, Councilor Rich DeGrandpre said it’s important that the town doesn’t remove the option of transferring or selling the land to avoid paying the permit fee, noting that large projects, like school renovations, are on the horizon.
Palmer eventually said the town should set up a meeting with DEP to discuss the cost of the permit. In the likely event the town does have to move forward with the permitting, it should outline half a dozen development projects it wants to complete in the next 10 years, he said.
In the end, the council instructed town staff to talk with DEP about getting some relief on the permit and agreed to put the item on an upcoming council agenda for action.
The deadline for the decision on the permit is Jan. 15.