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Report questions Brunswick's land conservation capacity

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Report questions Brunswick's land conservation capacity

BRUNSWICK — A new Conservation Commission report questions the town's capacity to properly manage its conservation land.

The report, submitted to the Town Council earlier this month, includes an inventory of town-owned open space, detailing more than 45 properties it has acquired as conservation land, mainly through open space requirements in its subdivision ordinance.

Spaces identified vary widely in size, use and condition, from the sprawling, 123-acre former landfill on Pleasant Hill Road, to a minuscule 0.03-acre parcel abutting a housing subdivision on Wildwood Drive. 

Unlike town parks, the parcels surveyed do not fall under the jurisdiction of any town departments. But the town is still responsible for their management through the Conservation Commission.

The town does not, however, have policies in place for maintenance, public use, or how to accept conservation lands in the future, the report says.

Issues identified on conservation land led commissioners to pose the question "does the town have the staff and/or commission time and resources to adequately manage and maintain conservation properties?"

It isn't surprising that Brunswick doesn't have policies in place to take care of the properties, commission Chairwoman Amanda Bunker said, noting that many Maine communities that have conservation land and easements don't have management plans.

But that doesn't mean Brunswick shouldn't have those policies, she added.

The inventory is meant to provide a baseline to discuss what the town plans to do to overcome some of the challenges and opportunities the properties present.

"We're really at the start of a dialogue," Bunker said. "The town hasn't said 'what is the policy for managing conservation lands, what is the policy for accepting conservation lands.'"

Some of the conservation parcels have potential as recreation areas, wildlife habitats, or sources of of natural resources like timber, commissioners said in the inventory.

Many, however, are unmanaged and overgrown.

Several plots need urgent maintenance to fix bridges and wash-outs, and to remove trash and invasive plants. Some, including the two town-owned forests on the west side of Brunswick, lack clear or direct public-access points, commissioners said.

Moreover, nearly all the parcels do not have boundary markers, making encroachment from neighboring property owners an issue, commissioners reported.

On at least 10 of the parcels commissioners identified illegal dumping sites, tree houses, deer stands, and in one case, a shooting range. The report recommends the town determine the source of the encroachment and require cleanup and the removal of illegal structures.

The commissioners also question whether jurisdiction of some of the larger plots should be transferred to the Parks and Recreation Department, or if ownership of some properties, primarily the two town forests, should be transferred to the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, which may be better suited to conserve them.

Several very small plots, including some smaller than half an acre, "have little or no public conservation or open space value," the commissioners state in the report.

Nearly all the tiny spaces are connected to housing subdivisions, leading commissioners to question whether their maintenance could be taken over by homeowner associations and whether the town should have policies in place regarding future acceptance of conservation land.

The Town Council is expected to hold a workshop on the open space inventory at an upcoming meeting.  

Designing policies to address issues raised in the inventory is a long-term goal and relies on participation from other stakeholders, like the Recreation and Rivers Commission, the Coastal Waters Commission, and town departments, Bunker said.

"It will take several years to work it out," she added. "We're not going to know in two or three months how the management will go forward." 

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