Opinions clash on proposed Brunswick coastal access

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BRUNSWICK — The Planning Board on Tuesday tried to take a “narrow approach” after being asked by the Town Council to provide a recommendation about a new public park at Mere Point.

But after the meeting, emotions in the debate over the 4-acre parcel at 946 Mere Point Road spilled over, when an opponent of the project threatened one of its supporters.

The night began smoothly, with Chairman Charlie Frizzle laying out what he saw as the parameters of the board’s authority.

Frizzle said he was aware that the former owner of 946 Mere Point Road, Richard Nudd of Walpole, Massachusetts, has asked the town about re-acquiring the property, which was foreclosed in 2011. Unpaid taxes on the property are estimated to be about $65,000.

Another Brunswick resident, attorney Andre Duchette, is advising Nudd about the process.

But Frizzle said it was the Planning Board’s duty to “ignore that … request,” because it was outside its purview; the ultimate decision on whether to sell or retain the land, he said, lies with the council.

The Planning Board’s recommendation should be “rather narrow,” he said. He suggested the board look to the town’s Comprehensive Plan for direction, and also define what type of development could be allowed, if the town chooses to make it a public coastal access site.

For example, one recommendation could be moving the driveway farther from neighbors’ property lines, he said.

Board member Jane Arbuckle argued that the Comprehensive Plan actually states as an objective the town should “acquire new water access when feasible.”

She said there is a need for more water access, demonstrated by “ridiculous” crowding at Simpson’s Point on summer days.

But Board Vice Chairwoman Margaret Wilson pushed back, saying the objective cited by Arbuckle is not one of the Comprehensive Plan’s “key actions.”

Additionally, she said, “it’s pretty clear this is not a water access site,” because the banks are too steep.

But the “idea of a small pocket park … is delightful,” Wilson added.

Frizzle said the Recreation Commission, which met last week, felt the site was not fit for active recreation, but more suited for “passive” recreation, such as walking trails.

During public comment, Town Councilor Steve Walker, who has been a supporter of developing the site for public access, said water access does not necessarily mean building a boat ramp.

Instead, water access could mean simply viewing the water from the road or from a new park, he argued.

Richard Knox, of Simpson’s Point Road, said the site actually is appropriate for swimming – even more so than the Simpson’s Point boat launch. He later provided a photo to The Forecaster of him swimming, time-stamped almost three hours after low tide.

“It was the best swim of my summer,” he said.

But neighbors of the parcel see the issue differently.

Reading from a letter signed by the six abutters, Heather Osterfeld of Wild Aster Lane, flanked by her family, said, “When we each purchased our properties, we researched the surroundings and knew that we were buying into a residential neighborhood.”

Now, she said, the landowners feel “betrayed” by the town they trusted to protect their private property rights.

Osterfeld said the Planning Board would have to deny an application for a new public park in a residential neighborhood because it would “disrupt” the enjoyment of their homes, as well as devalue their properties.

Town Planner Jared Woolston, however, said because the park would be a municipal use, it would be permitted in any zone.

Board members asked planning staff to write a draft recommendation based on the night’s comments, to be discussed at their next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

After the meeting, while leaving Council Chambers, Osterfeld’s son was overheard by a reporter telling Knox, “don’t (expletive) with my parents’ livelihood.”

Knox said the comment was an attempt at intimidation.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Heather Osterfeld said she was “shocked” to hear about her son’s comment.

“He’s a fine young man and I’m utterly shocked to hear that,” she said. “I’m sure it was an emotional, knee-jerk kind of thing, protecting his mom.”

Osterfeld also said she has felt “intimidated and threatened” through the process by “special interests” that are trying to push the project through.

Osterfeld also said she believes there are several conflicts of interest compromising the public process. Councilor Steve Walker, Planning Board member Jane Arbuckle, and Richard Knox all work for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a Topsham-based conservation and stewardship organization, she noted.

“It was wholly inappropriate for Steve Walker … to correct and instruct the Planning Board in how to craft their recommendation to the Town Council,” Osterfeld said. “It reflects that there’s a personal agenda there and a professional agenda there that is not objective.”

As for a public park being a municipal use that is allowed in any zone, “the (fact that) the town can do whatever they want … is very, very concerning to me,” she said.

Walker defended the public process Tuesday night, saying the town has “a history of looking for potential coastal access sites.”

“There just aren’t many … deep water access points” in Brunswick, he said.

Referring to his work at MCHT, he also said he’s “never seen a situation where conserved land … does not enhance the value” of surrounding properties.

The Town Council is scheduled to take up the issue again in September.

“I wish (support for the project) was stronger” on the council, Walker said. “I think (some councilors) are out of touch with the real desire for more access to the water.

“I hope to make a strong case,” he added.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Richard Knox, of Simpson’s Point Road, swims three hours after low tide July 17 at a potential new public coastal access point at Mere Point in Brunswick. He said “It was the best swim of my summer.”

Heather Osterfeld and her family read from a letter signed by six abutters to 946 Mere Point Road at a Brunswick Planning Board meeting July 26. “We feel betrayed by the very town that we all chose and love,” she said.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.