BRUNSWICK, Maine — Proponents of “world class” botanical gardens long envisioned for land at the redeveloped Brunswick Naval Air Station will now look elsewhere to locate their project.
In a letter emailed to The Times Record on Tuesday, the day the Navy formally pulled up stakes in Brunswick, Brunswick Park & Gardens President Herschel Sternlieb wrote to the newspaper and other undisclosed recipients that obstruction by federal, town and base redevelopment officials forced him to “abandon Brunswick Landing as the possible site” for its privately run botanical gardens complex.
In raising funds for the garden complex and promoting it to the community, the group projected that the site would attract 1 million visitors per year after 10 years in business and bring $155 million in annual economic benefits to the area.
After a federal Base Re-alignment and Closure commission voted in 2005 to close BNAS, Brunswick Park & Gardens was one of the first entities to step forward with a plan to reuse a portion of the 3,200-acre Navy property that is now in the process of becoming available for civilian redevelopment. The now nonprofit group planned to build on 250 acres it sought to purchase on the base property.
But Sternlieb said that, “From the beginning … we proceeded without encouragement from town officials, the [local redevelopment authority] and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority boards and elected officials,” except for former state Rep. and Economic Development Commissioner John Richardson and state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky.
“They repeatedly assured us, ‘You’ll get the land,’” Sternlieb wrote, adding, “We were repeatedly assured by Richardson and Gerzofsky that said acreage would be set aside and zoned properly so that we could bid on it.”
The master reuse plan for the base approved by the Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority did include an area that initially was considered for the gardens, but Federal Aviation Administration officials blocked the proposal, arguing the botanical attraction would be too close to landing and departing airplanes on nearby runways.
According to Sternlieb, Gerzofsky, MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque and Brunswick Town Councilors Ben Tucker and Debbie Atwood assured the gardens group that land set aside for — but not conveyed to — Bowdoin College would be available to his group. He alleges that town officials worked with Bowdoin College and MRRA staff without informing Brunswick Park & Gardens representatives of the discussions, and that Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown and Levesque eventually advised Brunswick Park & Gardens that the group should consider land off the base.
Hoping to find other land available on the base, Sternlieb said that in 2010 he requested — but never received — information from Levesque, including a letter from the FAA about acceptable uses on the land and a letter from MRRA stating any and all objections the redevelopment authority might have to Brunswick Park & Gardens securing land at the base.
Last month, Bob Dale of the Brunswick Park & Gardens board of directors met with Levesque to propose “a simple park on the golf course property,” but was turned down, Sternlieb wrote, in part because the former base golf course is under contract to be operated in the short term by Harris Golf.
Levesque told The Times Record on Wednesday that he offered the gardens group a chance to lease about 50 acres on the southeastern portion of the base. He admitted the proposed site stood over the Eastern Plume, a mass of groundwater contaminants Levesque said are deep enough not to inhibit a botanical garden.
“We offered them an alternative site, they just couldn’t go by the airport,” Levesque said. “We’d be willing to give them a try and let them grow their plan.”
But in his letter, Sternlieb decried the Eastern Plume as “one of the most toxic and contaminated Superfund sites on the base,” and said his group “rejected [MRRA’s 50-acre offering] as an affront to all that we stood for morally and ecologically.”
Sternlieb wrote that at a May 4 meeting, the garden group “decided that BP&G would cease any efforts to continue a relationship with either MRRA or the town of Brunswick and seek an alternative site for our project.”
On Tuesday, Brown said that the town did not determine how the base property would be divided among entities, and that the FAA has the greatest impact on restricting uses. He reiterated that the town and Bowdoin College are prohibited from transferring any acquired property to another party. He said Bowdoin College only recently acquired its land through a no-cost conveyance.
Until the remaining conveyances are completed, he said, “we don’t know where the lines are going to be.”
According to Brown, town officials have made no effort to dissuade Brunswick Park & Gardens from seeking property that may be conveyed to the town, but they have been clear about what the zoning ordinance will and will not allow.
The garden group did not apply for a no-cost conveyance.
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