September 22, 2018
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Chewonki Campground owners say Wiscasset airport safety upgrades could force them out of business

By Beth Brogan, BDN Staff
Updated:

WISCASSET, Maine — Despite the hot August sun, Pam Brackett walked down a dirt lane at Chewonki Campground on a recent afternoon, shaded by about 20 tall white pines hand-planted by her father 53 years ago.

“This is our gateway,” she said of the tree-lined driveway that connects her home to the rest of the 50-acre campground. “When people go through, their shoulders go down.”

In 1961, Brackett’s father, area attorney and judge Donald Brackett, opened the campground off Chewonki Neck Road. Today, Brackett and her sister, Ann Beck, operate the 47-site seasonal business with their two daughters.

Also in 1961, just across Chewonki Neck Road, planes began taking off and landing on the 3,397-foot-runway at Wiscasset Municipal Airport.

In the past 12 years, the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport has increased 44 percent, from 7,500 to 10,800 annually, according to a draft airport master plan prepared by Stantec Consulting Services. The number of hangars has increased from four to 30. Projections slate future airport growth for 4.4 percent per year.

But whether the two businesses can continue to co-exist — or, in the case of the airport, expand — appears cloudy, as the town of Wiscasset prepares to negotiate with Beck and Brackett for an easement that would allow the cutting or pruning of several acres of trees at the campground to keep the airport’s airspace clear of obstructions.

Failure to cut the trees will jeopardize future federal funding, not just for the airport but for Wiscasset’s roads and other Department of Transportation projects, according to airport manager Ervin Deck, who also works as a senior aviation planner for Stantec.

An environmental assessment of the proposed project, also prepared by Stantec, identified approximately 61 tree-covered acres that obstruct the air space. One acre is within an easement the campground previously granted to the town — which Brackett said she regrets. A new easement is proposed for three additional acres at the campground.

In July, the Board of Selectmen approved an updated airport master plan, also prepared by Stantec, that identifies for removal “numerous” 25- to 70-foot conifers and deciduous trees, as well as the towering white pines lining the main lane through the campground. It also calls for navigation lights to be installed on the campground.

The master plan calls for Wiscasset officials, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, to negotiate with the campground owners for an easement that would allow them to clear the trees and install the lights.

Without the easement and the tree work, the airport will not qualify for federal funding to address safety concerns at the airport and, eventually, to expand the runway and build new hangars, as called for in the master plan.

Brackett said the master plan appears to target trees that shade some of her campground’s most precious waterfront campsites, as well as the prominent white pines at the entrance.

Supported by the adjacent Chewonki Foundation nature study center and dozens of campground patrons, Brackett says clearing the trees and installing the lights would spell the end of the quiet, shady solitude campers return to year after year. By extension, that could mean the end of the business her family has run for more than half a century.

Many who vacation at Chewonki Campground wrote to the town in July objecting to the plan.

Linda and Bill Sullivan of Venice, Florida, wrote they spend a week each year at Chewonki Campground and estimated they spend $1,000 annually in area shops, restaurants and gas stations.

“Other campers spend a similar amount and boost the local economy without impacting the town service costs at all,” the Sullivans wrote. “Chewonki campground is a jewel. It is an oasis we look forward to visiting every year. Asking the Chewonki owners to remove trees for the airport is almost a crime.”

Others noted the proximity to the new Brunswick Executive Airport at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and wondered whether the Wiscasset airport has become “superfluous.”

Anne C.R. Leslie, of the adjacent Chewonki Foundation, wrote the proposed lighting would “deeply degrade the character of the campground,” affect migratory birds, insects and other wildlife and potentially harm local businesses.

“Degradation of the visual environment will adversely affect Chewonki Foundation’s business,” Leslie wrote.

But Pam Dunning, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the trees must be “mitigated” to address safety issues. Dunning said she supported the master plan to allow the parties to “move forward and work things out with our neighbors in the friendliest way possible.”

According to Dunning, the campground owners would be offered “enough money that they would be able to afford to replant with trees.”

But Dunning acknowledged that if easements can’t be worked out, “yes, the town could take [the property] by eminent domain.”

FAA spokesman Jim Peters wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News that if the town does not obtain the easements, “the FAA could require the airport to pursue eminent domain acquisition of the easements to protect safe and efficient operations at the airport.”

Failure to obtain the easement and remove the trees “would likely restrict the use of the runway to daytime visual operations only,” the environmental assessment states, and would jeopardize the airport’s ability to secure future FAA airport improvement project funding because the airport would have failed to honor existing grant assurances, according to the environmental assessment.

Those future grants would be critical to move forward with expansion outlined in the master plan.

According to the plan, expansion would proceed in three phases, with “short-term” work to commence this year and include reconstruction of the runway and clearing the airspace of obstructions.

“Long-term” projects, foreseen for the years 2024 to 2033, would potentially include extending the runway by 603 feet and relocating Chewonki Neck Road to accommodate that extension; adding a new terminal building of 12,250 to 16,100 square feet; and identifying space for 28 new hangars.

The master plan recommends the town adopt an “airport overlay zone” for property closest to the airport, placing additional use restrictions and standards on the land that would limit the height of structures, require airport disclosure statements any time land is bought or sold and limit “incompatible uses and residential densities” near the airport.

Development costs range from $500,000 to $2.5 million, depending on the scale of the project.

But the proposed short-term improvements — specifically to clear the trees and install navigational lights — are what Beck, Brackett and their daughters, Phaelon O’Donnell and Johanna Beck, are focused on now. They’re not sure how to fight the proposal, but they’ve hired an attorney, along with a slew of other professionals, to advise them on how to proceed.

O’Donnell and Beck returned to the campground after pursuing education and adventure. They hope to continue to operate the family business for years to come.

“People say, ‘Bring more young people into Maine,’” Pam Brackett said. “Well, my niece and daughter are here. They’ve got great ideas. Both are very interested in carrying this on. But if the campground loses these trees, I don’t know if we would survive. Every site counts to the business to make it.”


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