Wednesday, August 29, 2012

From Navy Base to Town Park

Where in Brunswick can you find our little Pompeii?  A place where forested acres hide the ghost of a village once known as Middle Bay?  According to records from 1857 there were twenty-five homes located in this area.  Once the neighborhood included two schools, a brick yard, a carding mill, a sawmill, a gristmill, a grange, and, of course, a cemetary.  Pulitzer prize winning poet, Robert P.T. Coffin, for whom the town's Coffin School is named, once lived in one of those homes.  His work Lost Paradise drew on his time here and down in the Gurnet area.
If you drive down Pine Street in Brunswick past the Pine Grove Cemetery, Bowdoin's Whittier Field and follow it to its end, you'll come to a chain link fence.  But if you use you imagination you'll keep on driving across runways, through hangars and bunkers and end up on the Board Road in East Brunswick.  At an intersection you could turn left and head to Cook's Corner, or turn right and head down the Gurnet Road to the islands.  Head right across Board Road and you'd end up at Woodward Point just as you do today.
If your imagination is not up for it head over to Google Earth and look down the end of Pine Street; you'll see the whisper of the road through the woods is still there, the vegetation just a slightly lighter color.  After all, it's only had sixty years to grow in.
When the Navy decided to shutter Brunswick Naval Air Station back in 2005 not many people could find a silver lining.  One great thing is the return to the Town of Brunswick of about 800 acres for use as conservation land, open space, and for active recreation.  In the map below both the areas shown cross-hatched in red and the dark red area will all be conveyed to the town of Brunswick.  We may take control---if not actual ownership of it---as soon as this fall.  All the dark red, and red-shaded areas, will be conveyed to the town of Brunswick, some of the parcels as soon as this fall.

Both the dark red and the red shaded areas will eventually be conveyed to the Town of Brunswick for open space and recreational use. They'll be conveyed separately after completion of the Finding of Suitability to Transfer, or FOST.  The town will get control of some of the parcels in the Fall of 2012; actual ownership will come later.Both the dark red and the red shaded areas will eventually be conveyed to the Town of Brunswick for open space and recreational use. They'll be conveyed separately after completion of the Finding of Suitability to Transfer, or FOST.  The town will get control of some of the parcels in the Fall of 2012; actual ownership will come later.  

The Recreation Trails and Open Space Committee has been working in earnest since last fall to plan for what we'll be able to do with the land once we get it.  In many ways we're not generating a new plan but working to make sure the details of any planning we do are consistent with the Navy's reuse plan completed in conjunction with the BLRA as the base was BRAC process was unfolding back in 2006.
Process and timeline for conveyance.  The so called "public benefit" conveyances that emerged from the base closure process are so called to distinguish them from the property that the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA) will hold, and with any luck, sell for commercial developement.  The commercial properties will be conveyed directly to MRRA; MRRA can then sell, or lease,  them to businesses.
The public benefit conveyances, however, will be transferred from the Navy to other sponsoring federal agenicies who, during the BRAC process, made a determination that that some qulaifying public benefit could be obtained by giving the land---for free---to a qualifying public entity.  Many non-profit agencies applied for public benefit conveyances during  the BRAC process.
For the purposes of the town's new open space, the most important public benefit conveyances are to the Town of Brunswick and to Bowdoin College.  The town's conveyance was sponsored by the Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service (NPS), while Bowdoin's public benefit conveyance is sponsored by the Departement of Education.
It's important that we understand there are two federal agencies at work here.  Bowdoin will deal with the Department of the Education while Brunswick will deal with Interior and NPS.  The west side of the base along the Harpswell Road (Rt. 123) will consist of a jigsaw of parcels, some to be conveyed to the town and some to Bowdoin.  Brunswick's parcels are shown on the map as the red shaded areas labeled Rec-1, 2, 3 &4.  Bowdoin will get most of the parcels in between Brunswick's parcels, west of the runways and east of the Harpswell Road.  Bowdoin's land is developable; they will likely build on this land; Brunswick's land however is for open space, recreation and parks.
Because different agencies are involved, different time-tables, and different points of contact will be involved so it's difficult to determine when and under what circumstances this land will become accessible.
The first step is for the Navy to make a determination that the property is suitable for transfer, or a finding of suitability to transfer (FOST).  The solid red areas above show that the FOST is still pending, while the red shaded areas show FOST completed.  Brunswick's largest piece, the dark red area labeled REC-7, should be transferred to the Park Service in October of this year.  Once the NPS has control of it the town will be able to use and manage the land through an agreement with NPS, the actual conveyance will come sometime later.
The trail's committee, led by Julie Isbill of the National Park Service and Tony Barrett of the East-Coast Greenway and the Appalachian Mountain Club, do some map work during a March hike. This group has made dozens of hikes and bikes across the 800 acres braving cold, wet and ticks to put together a plan for new trails for the benefit of Brunswick's people.   Photo, copyright Benet Pols

Work to be done.  The Recreation, Trails and Open Space Committee is divided into to four working groups: the Natural Resources Group, the History & Cultural Resources Group, the Trail Design and Layout Group and the Management Group.  The four groups meet on their own schedule and all four get together once a month on the third Thursday.
All meetings are open to the public but we hope to have significant amount of citizen input this fall, tentatively September 20th, when we show off the work completed so far.  We hope to have a final plan to present to the town council in December of 2012.  Among the things that will of particular interest to the citizens, especially those that live adjacent to the old base are:
1. A name for the property. Typically the Parks and Recreation Department, though the Recreation Commission, names new town parks.  To assist them the History and Culture committee has been gathering information on historical antecedents.
Who lived in this house? The History and Culture Committee, led by Rick Wilson of CREA and BHS with help from Fred Koerber, local historian and former teacher at both BJHS and BHS, are looking into the history of the parcels. This will help with naming and with markings for locations of interest.  Photo, copyright Benet Pols

 We know the general area was once known as Middle Bay, but given its similarity other names in town it seems an unlikely contender. In additon, given the spearate parcels we'll probably need more than a few names.  Brunswick High Students, under the direction of Fred Koerber, longtime history teacher and department head, are doing the research to support naming efforts as well as providing interpretive information for sites of historical interest.
In addition to the Coffin home we hope to recover some of the original boundary markers of the Town Commons.  It's believed that five of them still exist somewhere on Navy property.  One of them has already been located on a parcel that will be turned over to Bowdoin.
2. Access to the property.  A lot of thought and analysis, including  public meetings with input from citizens and abutters, happened back in 2006 when the reuse study was completed.  Even so, we'll be revisiting these issues during public forums to confirm the infomration.  In addition some changes have occurred due to environamtal restrictions and changes in the size of the parcel; what we once thought was 1500 acres has been reduced to about 800 acres.  Some entry points may have disapeared in the process.
We can expect entry points on the west side off of Pine Street near the St. John's cemetery, in the Garrison Street neighborhood, further south on Harpswell Road near the "Quebec Gate" opposite the Town Commons, and through the golf course entrance at the intersection of Middle Bay  and Harpswell Roads.  From the north we can expect to access this property through the main entrance and across MRRA's roadways.  From the east there property will entered through the Wildwood neighborhood (the town already owned land in Wildwood adjacent to the base), off of the Coombs Road and Purinton Roads and from the Princes Point Road.
In addition, in consultation with MRRA and other property owners we need to determine what fences will come down.
One thing that's very clear is the need for the different property owners to cooperate and consult with one-another as access and trails are considered.  The main part of the base remains mostly as it was left by the Navy, few people are on the base property on any given day.  Aside from the people who now have jobs there there is little reason to go on the base.  There are no recreation facilities, no restaurants, and no shopping of any sort.  Right now the only part of the base that shows any vibrance at all is the golf course as accessed from Middle Bay Road.  The ambiance of the place will be greatly enhanced just by the mere appearance of people seeking new ball fields, or to hike, bike or ski through this new space.  Brunswick Landing needs signs of life.
3. Continued environmental clean-up.  The biggest dark red piece, REC-7, contains about 640 acres of the total to be conveyed, but if you look carefully at the map you'll see other smaller parcels (REC-8,9,10, 12, 13 &14) carved out.   These smaller pieces will be held back as the Navy and federal agencies continue to do environmental remediation.  In some cases, they'll be removing contaminants, mainly remnants from munitions, but in other cases they're simply completing monitoring work---that is, looking for hazards.
Likewise, on the east side significant portions of the land to be conveyed to Bowdoin--particularly near a quarry, close to the Quebec Gate on Rte. 123, that had been used as a dumping ground--remain to be surveyed and cleaned.  Use of the town's parcels along the Harpswell Road will likely be hampered by the clean-up of the Bowdoin parcels, even though our parcels are ready for conveyance.  Because it's a string of separate parcels, the use of that land for hiking will not likely be practical until they can be strung together with Bowdoin's parcels.
4. Features.  Among the interesting features are old military bunkers used for munitions storage.  Anyone who appreciates the old towers at Fort Baldwin near Pophm Beach will enjoy rambling around these old bunkers, especially as they give way to an open field that runs down to a lovely salt marsh around Mere Brook as it winds its way toward the Ocean at Harpswell Cove.

Scores of bunkers like this dot the eastern side of Mere Creek in a big field. Photo, copyright Benet Pols

Thousands of people in Brunswick cross Mere Brook and Mere Creek every day as it works its way under Maine Street at Richards Drive, through Coffin's Ice Pond and under the Harpswell Road.  After traveling underground for a good distance beneath the runways and the core of the old Navy base, it remerges near the golf course and widens out as more of a creek than a brook.  It's entry into Harpswell Cove and the surrounding marsh make up some of the nicest natural lands on the base proeprty.
In addition, the History and Culture Committee will be working toward identifying and labeling locations of historical interest, if not significance.

This area, in REC-9, is currently accessible by car and has some rudimentary parking. You can see a bunker in the distance and the field leads down to a salt marsh making up the eastern side of Mere Creek as it empties into Harpswell Cove.  Photo, copyright Benet Pols

5. Trails. The trails committee is working on developing a network of trails using abandoned historical roads dating to both before and during the Navy's time and paths that occur naturally due to topography and geology; we've also been working to identify potential new trails keeping in mind the best scenery available.  The Natural Resources Committee is working to assure that any endangered habitat, widlife, important wetlands and other features of any sensitivity are clearly identified so they can be protected and labelled appropriately.
Abundant signs of wild, wildlife. Photo, copyright Benet Pols

Trail making will probably occur in phases after the town and college have acquired their respective parcels.  We'll start with existing paths that are used regularly now for skiing and other travel; these exist mainly on the western side of Mere Creek and are accessed most easily from the golf course entrance at Middle Bay Road.  There is one significant exception on the eastern side now that is accessible now, even by car.  The bunkers on the east side of Mere Creek are accessible by road, and rudimentary parking exists now.  This area shows up on the map above around the area labeled REC-9.
As time goes on and money is available trails will be built, or connected to one another.  In addition parking will be added at some of the access points so that visitors of all hiking abilities will be able to enjoy the parcel.

Harpswell Cove as seen from the southern end of the town property. In the middle distance you can see where Mere Creek drains into the cove. This piece of the property is familiar to those who've used the golf course trails for skiing and snow-shoeing in the winter. As the trails committee continues its work, this area will be accessible year round.  Photo, copyright Benet Pols

Committee Members:  With thanks to the following committee members.
Tony Barrett, East Coast Greenway; Maine Appalachian Trail Club
Julie Isbill, National Park Service
Bruce Kidman, The Nature Conservancy
Catherine Ferdinand, Bowdoin College
Rick Wilson, BHS Service Learning; Cathance River Educational Alliance
Fred Koerber, BHS
Angela Twitchell, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust
Steve Walker, Town of Brunswick, Planning Board; State of Maine IFW
Connor Handy, Bowdoin College Student Planning Fellow.
Brunswick High Students under the direction of Fred Koerber, long time history teacher and department head at BHS.
 Benet Pols, Brunswick Town Council, Land for Brunswick’s Future
Suzan Wilson, Brunswick Town Council
Bob Rocheleau, MRRA
Marty McMann, MRRA

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