Harpswell explores 2 tracks for future of Mitchell Field

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HARPSWELL — Town officials are restarting a conversation on the future of Mitchell Field, a 119-acre parcel of shoreline public land in South Harpswell. 

The town’s Planning Department, in conjunction with the Mitchell Field Committee, plans to hold a series of January workshops to get feedback on plans to build a boat ramp and remedy a crumbling pier at the former U.S. Navy fuel depot. 

At the same time, the Board of Selectmen is revisiting commercial opportunities for the land and may work with a sales agent to encourage marine businesses to move to the property. 

The Planning Board sessions will be held on Jan. 26, 2015, at the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall; Jan. 27 at the West Harpswell School on Route 123, and Jan. 28 at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse. All meetings will be at 6:30 p.m. 

Following the release of a boat launch feasibility report in 2011 there were attempts to get public feedback, but this there is a more concerted effort, Town Planner Carol Eyerman said. 

“We had workshops, but we didn’t broadcast them enough,” Eyerman said. “This time we’re making an effort to get the word out so we’ll get some more input.”

The 2011 report, from engineering firm Baker Design Consultants, put the cost of constructing a boat ramp and parking facilities at nearly $288,000. 

Public participation is important to answer “lingering” questions about whether the town should pursue the boat launch, deal with the pier, or both, Eyerman said.

Selectman Elinor Multer, at a Dec. 18 board meeting, said she favors getting residents’ input on a boat ramp, but wants to focus attention on prospective users. 

The Planning Department also wants to get the public’s opinion on how it should contend with the deteriorating, 60-year-old pier complex on the property. 

The pier, which includes an attached breasting platform and two mooring platforms, has not been used since 1992. Public access was closed in 2012 because concerns over structural reliability, and in April that year the northern mooring platform and catwalk connection to the pier collapsed.

The 2013 report, also from Baker Design Consultants, estimated that minimal action at the site, including demolition, could cost between $450,000 and $900,000, while full rehabilitation could cost between $3.5 million and $4.8 million.

Selectmen, on Dec. 18, approved using $2,500 from the town’s economic development fund to hold the January workshops. At the time, Eyerman said that because the infrastructure could draw people into the town, it was related to economic development. 

According to Eyerman, the funding will be used to pay Barney Baker, from Baker Design Consultants, to attend the meetings and answer questions. Baker is charging $110 per hour, in addition to transportation costs, Eyerman said on Tuesday. 

On the economic development front, selectmen may work with local commercial Realtor Don Span to attract businesses to the Mitchell Field waterfront. 

Two business zones on the property have been dormant since negotiations between selectmen and a nonprofit aquaculture center broke down in November 2012.

Span recently met with Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, who said a workshop with selectmen is being planned.

A master plan for a mixed-use area including businesses, housing and public areas has been on the books since 2007. In 2011, voters approved two commercial zones on the shoreline, intended for marine-related businesses like boat building or aquaculture. 

But some of the requirements in the zones, like small building footprints and infrastructure improvement cost-sharing between the town and enterprises, might make it difficult to bring in the type of businesses Harpswell wants. 

In a 2013 report on the town’s economic development, researchers from Planning Decisions, a Portland-based firm, said it is unlikely town officials will find a small business with a limited impact that also has the money to spend on infrastructure.

In recognition of its limitations, Harpswell should revisit its approach to Mitchell Field, the report recommended.

Eiane on Wednesday said it would be up to voters to decide whether to reform some of the aspects of the Mitchell Field plan. While it has its limitations, Mitchell Field also presents opportunities for the right tenant, Eiane said. 

“There may be some businesses looking for that kind of deep-water access, and not everyone can offer that,” she said. “We think we have some unique characteristics that are real opportunities, but you have to find the right fit, the right business.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire.

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