FREEPORT — As a landscape, the 15 acres of town-owned woods off Pownal Road near the transfer station are quiet this time of year, with little to hear but the sound of snow crunching underfoot.
But as a political battlefield, the area is a source of noisy contention.
Town councilors could decide next week on a requested zoning change to allow an indoor and outdoor athletic facility on the land. A public hearing on the zoning change begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, at Freeport Community Center, 53 Depot St.
The request to amend the rural residential zone to create a recreation zone was filed earlier this month by Mike Healy, a Freeport resident who is also a former coach, past president and past board member of Topsham-based soccer club Seacoast United Maine.
Seacoast United wants to build a a 35-foot-tall, 60,000-square-foot indoor facility and additional outdoor fields. An agreement between the town and the nonprofit youth sports organization would allow Seacoast United to acquire 12.4 acres and lease three acres for $100 annually for 50 years, in exchange for use of the indoor and outdoor fields by Freeport residents.
“This is certainly an excellent site given the location,” Healy said, because the complex would be close to Interstate 295 and more convenient for athletes in the Portland area.
Healy estimated Seacoast United enrolls about 700 youths between ages 5 and 18 in sports programs from Topsham to Scarborough and draws athletes from as far south as Kennebunk. The organization also has youth programs and an indoor facility in southern New Hampshire.
Opposing the zoning change is the group Save Our Neighborhoods, which spokeswoman Lucy Lloyd said came together last fall after the Planning Board declined to endorse creating a zoning “overlay” district on the land so Seacoast could progress with its plans.
“This is not about soccer, this is about zoning change,” Lloyd said. “What is really important is neighbors aren’t pitted against neighbors.”
Lloyd said her coalition has gathered about 300 online and print signatures opposing the zoning change and hopes the hearing next week will let councilors understand the depth and breadth of opposition to the plan. She said she also hopes there will be a community discussion on the best place for Seacoast to expand in town.
As he walked through the woods off Pownal Road on Monday, Murch Road resident Walter Libby said he opposes Seacoast United’s plans and the zoning change because the project is a commercial venture unsuited to how residents want to land to be used.
“I weigh the needs of our youth highly, but this does not fit in our area,” Libby said as he walked over trails built by runners from the Freeport High School cross-country team.
Those trails would be moved as part of the sales agreement. But Libby and his neighbor, Tom Ross, said the details of the agreement are troubling, and the agreement was approved by councilors last April without adequate review.
Libby and Ross also dispute portions of a 12-page fact sheet about the project because of perceived omissions and inaccuracies about the scope of the development and effect on the town and its finances.
Town officials have placed a cash value of more than $500,000 for 50 annual hours of free use of indoor fields and 100 annual hours of free outdoor use of the fields. Free field use is extended through the life of the fields, but Libby and Ross say town officials have exaggerated the 20-year projected lifespan.
According to the website for South Portland-based Northeast Turf, field turf synthetic fields installed by the company are warrantied for eight years.
Libby added the agreement requires free weekday use before 4 p.m., making it very difficult for the fields to be used for after-school practices.
The agreement with the town would allow Seacoast United use of three Hunter Road fields in perpetuity – an unfair exchange, he said – and a clause could lead to the town reimbursing Seacoast United for construction costs if the project fails.
Lloyd and Libby said if passed, the zoning request would set a precedent potentially affecting other areas of town. But Healy discounted that suggestion, especially because the zoning change is requested on town-owned land.
“The idea the rest of the town could be rezoned is not a reasonable fear,” he said.
Seacoast United’s quest for more playing space began about three years ago when board members asked Healy to look for sites between Freeport and Falmouth. Healy said the organization has discussed building facilities in neighboring towns, but he still favors the Freeport project.
“We want a long-term home for the club,” Healy said.
Seacoast United initially sought to use land just off Pownal Road near the access road to the transfer station, but found the property now used as a football field too small because of surrounding wetlands.
While pointing at pink ribbons on trees noting where indoor and outdoor fields could be built, Libby wondered how well the project would fit now, and whether heavy equipment used for construction would not compact roots of trees not cut down and eventually kill the trees.
Healy assured local residents the indoor “arena” would be concealed from view by trees, but Ross said he wonders how the three-story structure will affect views from the top of adjacent Hedgehog Mountain, a town recreation area.
Town Council Chairman Jim Cassida has said the hearing and council vote on the zoning change would continue the process unless councilors reject the zoning change. Cassida said he expects a Planning Board hearing and another council hearing before construction might begin.
Town Manager Dale Olmstead said the athletic complex would also need approval from the Project Review Board.
Freeport resident and former teacher Walter Libby said ribbons on trees marking the site of the proposed Seacoast United Maine athletic complex off Pownal Road do not adequately show the scope of the project and it’s effects on the area west of Interstate 295. “I weigh the needs of our youth highly, but this does not fit in our area,” he said.