FREEPORT — Town Council Chairman Jim Cassida on Tuesday said negotiations for an indoor soccer arena in a residential neighborhood will continue, even though the Planning Board rejected the proposal and a neighborhood coalition is against it.
Cassida said the final decision rests with the council.
His comments came during a workshop attended by approximately 75 people at Freeport Community Center.
Cassida said the Topsham-based nonprofit, Seacoast United, is also investigating other options to decide if it wants to continue talking with the council about developing this property, or moving the project.
If Seacoast determines there is not another viable spot in town to place the dome, “and they want to pursue that particular parcel again, they would come back to the council and have discussions about the zoning change,” he said. “The final act as to whether there will be or will not be a zoning change is made by the Town Council.”
Residents questioned how much money the town – and taxpayers – have spent on the proposal, the legality of spot zoning, triggers for state permitting and the nature of Tuesday’ workshop.
“This is not a done deal,” he said. “It is an ongoing conversation. If you feel strongly about it, you need to let us know because at some point we need to make a decision.”
The facilitated meeting Tuesday night was led by professional facilitator Lesa Andreasen. Some residents did not agree with the use of a facilitator, but Andreasen said she was present to ensure a safe environment for public discussion. Only at the end of the meeting did a few residents speak out of turn.
The workshop was intended for members of the Save Our Neighborhoods Coalition to discuss their concerns about the proposal to build a $4 million soccer arena and turf fields on Hedgehog Mountain Road.
The council approved the deal last December, even though indoor recreational facilities and nonprofit organizations are not approved uses under the town’s zoning ordinance.
On Nov. 2, the Planning Board voted 4-3 against making a recommendation to the Town Council to create an overlay district to allow the indoor facility in the Rural Residential 1 zone, specifically near the town-owned Hunter Road fields. The board also unanimously agreed not to allow recreational outdoor facilities in all of RR-1, a district that makes up 70 percent of the town.
Since then, representatives of Seacoast United have met with councilors and town staff to discuss ways to make the project fit, including amending the zoning ordinance to establish an overlay district, creating a new recreational zone, or adding an additional permitted use to the zone.
Seacoast representatives have also discussed looking at other areas of Freeport or other towns.
Many residents at the workshop questioned how the process had continued, even after discovering that councilors did not know about the necessity for a zone change when they approved the deal. Others wanted to know if there will be a benefit to the town and the neighborhood if Seacoast builds a soccer dome.
Michael Healy, a Freeport resident and past president and board member of Seacoast United, said he was aware of potential zoning issues associated with the project when talks began with the town. He said he was not sure who else was aware of the zoning conflict.
Councilor Sara Gideon said she was not aware of any zoning changes that were needed to be made when she approved the contract with Seacoast United. Former Councilor Joe Migliaccio said that when he asked about zoning conflicts, he was told there were no problems.
The workshop was an opportunity for residents to ask the council questions about the project, but resident Andrew Arsenault of Route 1 South said it can be difficult to have a dialog with elected officials.
“Some of us were hoping to come tonight to a round table forum where we could have a discussion with the council,” he said. “I feel once again we’ve had somebody put between our elected representatives and ourselves … we really need to think about how do get to our councilors, our elected officials and say we want to be more included in the process. We elected you, but you really need to listen to us so you can do a good job for us. Not just around us. Or at us.”
Hunter Road resident Susan Campbell said when residents have to sign petitions or take an issue to referendum, “it seems as though residents are put in a position to fight to protect what is theirs,” she said. “Why do we always have to take things to such lengths to stop it?”
The council will discuss communication options at their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 6:30 p.m. Cassida also said a planned workshop with Seacoast on Jan. 17 has been postponed to allow the soccer club more time to consider alternatives.