Rural development irks Brunswick advocate for open space

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BRUNSWICK — Inside Nathaniel Wheelwright’s Durham Road home is a poster of what Brunswick looked like in 1991.

The black-and-white aerial view of the town shows wide expanses of forests and fields, largely untouched by development.

In the 26 years since the photo was made, Wheelwright and his neighbors say their town has been taken over by construction projects, many of which have added to the level of traffic in formerly rural areas like Durham Road. 

Wheelwright, a Bowdoin College professor who has lived in Brunswick for more than 30 years, said the increase has driven away some of his longtime neighbors, and he and his wife will also move next summer because of it.

“This particular block is the largest unfragmented patch of forest left in Brunswick,” said Wheelwright, referring to the areas of forest that once lined both sides of Durham Road. “Or it was, until it just got fragmented.”

Ridgewood Estates, a housing development that began construction last summer, will eventually include 35 acres of the 180-acre wooded parcel abutting Durham Road, with plans to expand. The 13-unit subdivision was approved by the Planning Board in June.

The development is being built in the Rural Area Base District, under the Rural Farm and Forest category. According to the town’s zoning ordinances, updated in August, such areas are intended to “promote agriculture and compatible open space uses by discouraging large-scale development.” 

When the development’s original sketch plan was brought before the Planning Board at its June 4 meeting, developer Jon Snell was asked to return with a revised plan. Some board members raised concerns about how the original design stated the subdivision would fragment nearly 24 acres of conservation land, although the Conservation Commission determined the subdivision would not “unreasonably” fragment the area during a site walk in May. 

The revised plan submitted at the board’s next meeting reduced the total conservation area to 19 acres, consolidating the land into three areas closer together.

Wheelwright said he feels passionate about the fragmentation of such areas in town, because it can have a severe effect on wildlife.

“If you want to be able to protect plant and animal populations, it’s really critical to make sure that there are connections between the habitat blocks,” Wheelwright said. “It doesn’t have to be one continuous block, but it has to actually have connections. The instant you start putting in lawns and roads and houses you then isolate animals and plants on one side of the road or the other.”

He added for some species, such separation makes it impossible for them to survive. He said he and his wife have noticed some birds like wood thrushes have become harder to spot over the years. 

Though he is upset at the past construction projects erected near his home and throughout northwestern Brunswick, Wheelwright said he knows projects already underway cannot be stopped.

He added that the scope of the issue goes far beyond Ridgewood Estates, and he thinks part of the problem is town officials are not always experts on the areas in which they vote.

“Ultimately, I see the problem as being local governance by citizens which is wonderful, but we’re busy and we’re not professional,” he said. “So we do our best, but you see the Planning Board and Town Council are just not able to deal with the complexity of these issues.”

In the future, Wheelwright said he hopes the Town Council and Planning Board will be diligent in ensuring proposed developments adhere to the town’s Comprehensive Plan and its updated zoning ordinances.

“It’s clearly stated out in the 1993 Comprehensive Plan and the 2008 Comprehensive Plan that the people of Brunswick want to protect open space, and yet it’s not happening,” he said. “It’s time for the Town Council and the Planning Board (to take action).”

Chairwoman Alison Harris said to combat sprawl moving forward, the Town Council would observe the steps outlined in the updated zoning code for any appeals that are contrary to the code.

She added that if the zoning codes authorize development that are not in line with the town’s comprehensive plan, then the council needs to consider amending either the comprehensive plan or the zoning codes.

“The state recommends updating comprehensive plans every 10 years. Ours was approved in 2008, so it will be due for review soon anyway,” Harris said.

Other councilors did not respond at all to requests for comment, and Director of Planning and Development Anna Breinich said she did not have time to discuss the issue this week. 

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

This article was updated on Wednesday, November 22 to include Chairwoman Alison Harris’s comments. 

Brunswick resident Nathaniel Wheelwright stands in a construction area abutting Durham Road in Brunswick. 

Nathaniel Wheelwright and his neighbor Sue Kennedy look at a poster showing an aerial view of what Brunswick looked like in 1991. 

The sign for Ridgewood Estates, the 13-unit subdivision being built alongside Durham Road in Brunswick.

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  • Darren McLellan

    “any appeals that are contrary to the code”
    Here is an idea for all communities large and small.
    Enforce your zoning! Stop giving in via the appeals process over and over again. Create good zoning and stick to it. Be willing to say “NO”.

  • Ted Markow

    ‘“It’s clearly stated out in the 1993 Comprehensive Plan and the 2008 Comprehensive Plan that the people of Brunswick want to protect open space, and yet it’s not happening,” he said. “It’s time for the Town Council and the Planning Board (to take action).”

    ‘Chairwoman Alison Harris said to combat sprawl moving forward, the Town Council would observe the steps outlined in the updated zoning code for any appeals that are contrary to the code.’

    Wait a minute! Comprehensive plans were enacted in 1993 and 2008 and town leaders ignored them…but now they will observe the updated zoning code? Something doesn’t smell right about the whole process. To all Town Council and Planning Board members: Who do you represent?

    “Other councilors did not respond at all to requests for comment, and Director of Planning and Development Anna Breinich said she did not have time to discuss the issue this week.”

    This just plain stinks! Our town is being hacked up and sold and our representatives don’t have time to respond. Very disturbing.