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Freeport task force explores 'active living' improvements

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Freeport task force explores 'active living' improvements

FREEPORT — The Active Living Task Force held a forum to solicit public input as it drafts a plan to encourage residents to engage in non-automotive means of travel and recreation. 

"Who would like to walk, bike, hike, swim, kayak and ski safely in this community?" Anne-Marie Davee, chairwoman of the task force, asked Nov. 14 at the Freeport Community Center.

An enthusiastic crowd of about 65 responded with applause and raised hands.

The task force, formed by the Town Council in 2012, has been charged with assessing Freeport's walking, biking and hiking infrastructure and developing an Active Living Plan that provides suggestions for improving it.

Following a request-for-proposals process that began in December 2012, the task force selected The Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning consulting firm with offices in New York and Miami, to help develop the plan.

The Town Council authorized an appropriation of more than $23,600 from the public infrastructure reserve fund to hire the group.

At the forum, Mike Lydon, a Maine native and co-founder of Street Plans, gave a presentation on the benefits of having an Active Living Plan, including reductions in automobile fatalities and obesity (Maine has become the country's 23rd-most obese state, he said). Such plans are helping communities adjust to shifting cultural preferences, as fewer people obtain driver's licenses and more choose car-optional lifestyles, Lydon said.

He listed a series of options the town could look at for improving pedestrian and cyclist accessibility, from increasing sidewalks and bike lanes and bike racks, to improving road signage, to installing traffic lights that respond to cyclists.

Lydon noted that a majority of the 400-plus responders to an acting living survey said they are interested in biking more often, but don't feel comfortable cycling on Freeport's roads. It's unrealistic to hope for bike lanes on every street, but having a couple of bicycle corridors that run through town with several feeder networks coming off of them is a worthwhile goal, he said.

Forum attendees broke into 10 groups to discuss infrastructure improvements. Several participants said the town's roads are not safe enough for children to ride bikes or walk to school.

"I live spitting distance from the school, and it's not safe for my kids to walk there," Ethel Wilkerson said.

Another idea that gained traction was putting a trail beside the railroad tracks that run under I-295.

"It's already ready for us," Sydney Ambrose, a senior at Freeport High School, said. "It's calling us."

Other suggestions included better bicycle and walking conditions on Beech Hill Road, creating pedestrian access to trails from downtown Freeport, and connecting disparate trail routes across town.

The task force will develop a draft of an Active Living Plan over the next two months and solicit public responses to the draft at a second forum on Jan. 15. It aims to present a completed plan to the Town Council in February.

Street Plans has also been contracted to develop a bike and pedestrian plan for regional connectivity between Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, North Yarmouth and Freeport.

Freeport residents are encouraged to submit suggestions for the Active Living Plan at Town Hall or via email at activeliving@freeportmaine.com.

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.