BOOTHBAY, Maine — Jodie Anthony remembers when her son used to catch frogs and yellow-spotted salamanders in the pond by their Gaecklein Road home.
“Kevin had the frogs trained,” said Jodie, 77. “Then he’d take them down and release them.”
“I used to tag the snakes for a population estimate,” Kevin Anthony said recently, smiling as he stood near the vernal pool not far from the farmhouse, on 65 acres, that his parents bought 50 years ago. “You can’t really tag the frogs.”
Jodie Anthony looked forward to watching out her breakfast table window as her grandchildren discovered the same wetland creatures, or their progeny. Standing at the edge of the pond, Anthony and her husband, Vaughn, 80, looked out over the adjacent property, once forested but now clearcut to make way for a $30 million expansion at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, whose property surrounds the Anthonys on three sides.
“I want to put up a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Mordor,’” she said, a reference to the dark lands ruled by Sauron, the villain in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Blasting began last week off Gaecklein Road, just up the hill from Knickerbocker Lake, for the first phase of the expansion of what is already the largest public garden in northern New England.
“The blasts are already rattling the house, the dishes and the dog,” Anthony said Thursday in an email. “I can’t imagine what it will be like when they are right next to the house!”
When the expansion is complete, the garden complex will include a new visitor center and gift shop, a restaurant in the existing visitor center, a 16,000-square-foot horticulture research and production facility, and a nearly six-story conservatory, along with expanded parking, formal gardens and trails.
But to make that happen, large swaths of wetlands — including 6.2 acres of “critical terrestrial habitat of eight significant vernal pools” — will be “permanently altered,” according to a permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection approving the project.
The overwhelming success of the gardens’ annual holiday light show, Gardens Aglow, which this year drew 75,000 visitors, has generated buzz about the gardens and fed plans for growth that executive director William Cullina said is necessary to accommodate those crowds — and the economic boon they bring to the region.
On Dec. 16, 2016, despite loud objections by the Boothbay Region Water District and a number of area residents who argued that the expansion is ill-suited for the residential area and will irreparably damage Knickerbocker Lake, one of two public water supplies for the area, the Boothbay Planning Board unanimously approved the expansion.
The gardens also obtained required environmental permits from federal and state agencies.
‘We could have done it the right way’
As construction continues, so does the outcry — which has included fiery letters to the local weekly newspaper, a boycott effort and most recently a request for a restraining order — as opponents hold out hope that either the town’s Board of Appeals or continued public outcry will prompt the gardens to scale back plans.
Chief among the concerns of neighbors and water district officials is protecting Knickerbocker Lake, already listed by the DEP as “most at risk from new development,” from further degradation.
Plans for the expansion call for a new state-of-the-art 10,000-gallon-per-day septic system to be added to the existing discharge system that processes 6,000 gallons of wastewater per day.
For years, Bill Arsenault, who lives at the edge of 110-acre lake, has dived for golf balls, but in recent years he’s no longer able to find them because of “a whole 6-inch layer of slime,” he said recently, sitting at the kitchen table of his home.
Bill Arsenault’s wife, Paula Arsenault, acknowledges that the findings of a water district report indicate most of the existing pollution stems from residential lawns and driveways like hers, but she argues that information about the impacts of development wasn’t as readily available as it is now.
“Yes, our fingerprints are on some of this contamination, but it was ignorance,” she said. “No one told me in the early ’80s that blacktop near a pond [polluted the water].”
Jon Ziegra, general manager of the Boothbay Region Water District, said he urged Cullina, executive director of the botanical gardens, early in the process to connect to public sewer and water, and he offered to help find grants to fund the connection.
“We could have done it the right way, we could have gotten grants, but they just didn’t want to,” Ziegra said. “They had no compulsion to be good citizens of the town or region. They’re treating the town and region like they’re just a place to make money.”
Neighbors and water district staff also allege permits were granted for the project based on “faulty science,” and they failed to take into account a separate, “peer-review” report ordered by the planning board that found the gardens’ figures are based on an outdated model, “only account for a fraction” of the phosphorus that will potentially enter Knickerbocker Lake, and the amount of additional phosphorus the lake can tolerate is too high.
The Anthonys say the project violates the intent, if not the letter, of the town’s zoning ordinance, which they charge has “no teeth.”
They also object to a mitigation plan approved by the DEP that allows the gardens to compensate for the destroyed wetlands by paying an “in-lieu fee” to fund conservation elsewhere, beef up an existing education and training program focused on wetlands, and return 21 acres on the south side of Gaecklein Road to conservation.
Opponents of the plan charge the gardens with losing sight of its original mission, which included the language “to protect, preserve, and enhance the botanical heritage and natural landscapes of coastal Maine,” with misrepresenting the project to the town and in general being bad neighbors.
“This is not some cozy, ‘Kumbaya’ plant organization,” Paula Arsenault said in an email. “This has become a greedy theme park.”
“The people at the helm of the organization are not nice people,” Jodie Anthony said, repeating claims by other family members that they’ve never been approached by the gardens about the expansion.
They pointed to a Jan. 12 warning issued to the gardens by the DEP after a site visit determined inadequate erosion control barriers on three sites including Gaecklein Road, and ineffective barriers in another.
“If future instances of noncompliance occur, the Department will issue a Notice of Violation, which could result in a monetary penalty,” the note to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and its contractor, Crooker & Sons, states.
“The DEP, in their official capacity, have fired a shot across the bow,” said Art Dunlap, who as Boothbay’s codes enforcement officer serves as the lead staff person for the project. “[The note said], ‘We aren’t going to fine you now, but if something else comes up, we will, so straighten up and fly right.’”
Still, Dunlap said the project is “good to go. As unpopular as the decision may be, if it meets the criteria of the ordinance,” the planning board couldn’t deny it. In fact, he said, under the existing ordinance, “if the botanical gardens wanted to come in here today with a project four to five times bigger than this, they could do it. There are no size restrictions.”
Dunlap said the project has served as “a wake-up call” to the town, which is now reviewing ordinances “with a fine-toothed comb.”
‘We’re doing everything right’
Sitting recently in the bright, LEED-certified education center at the gardens, Cullina sighed in response to questions about the expansion project and the resulting “contentiousness.”
He insists he’s spoken personally to the Anthonys “a number of times over the years,” and says that as a member of the volunteer fire department on nearby Southport Island, he even responded to a fire at their home last year.
Cullina said he’s heard objections to the plan and questions about his motives, and chalks much of it up to “a [not-in-my-backyard] thing going on with the neighbors, and with the water district.”
Asked about the DEP warning, he said, “Abutters were trespassing on our property, looking for any little thing they could find. We caught them.”
“The reason we got approved is we’re doing everything right and we have done nothing wrong,” Cullina said. “Believe me, the last thing we wanted to do is build parking. But the master plan started in 2011, and the No. 1 thing the board charged the committee with is bringing the structure up to date.”
He argued that the organization has heard the concerns of the neighbors and the water district, and amended the plan in an effort to be good neighbors. He said 695 parking spaces plus bus parking are now planned — far short of the 800 initially proposed — and added that the gardens eliminated a lot near the Anthonys’ home.
“They were concerned about weddings, and [now] we’re not doing weddings,” said Cullina, an award-winning horticulturist and author who until coming to the botanical gardens was nursery director at the New England Wildflower Society.
Cullina dismissed the alternative environmental report, saying it “really had nothing” and that the engineers “had some trouble understanding” the science.
“They didn’t get it in in time for the DEP [to consider],” he said, “but one way or another, it’s not like it’s a smoking gun.”
Cullina said cost estimates to connect to water and sewer neared $4 million.
“It just wasn’t feasible,” he said. “We’re not sitting on a giant pile of money here.”
Furthermore, he alleged that although Ziegra initially told Cullina he thought he could fund the water and sewer connections entirely through grants, Ziegra contacted him “a few months later and said, ‘Well, I think the USDA would cover 40 percent.”
Of the clearcut, he said, “We did cut all the way to their property line, but the planting plan is for dense, native evergreen trees” to create a new buffer.
While the gardens’ tax records indicate holdings of $20 million, Cullina said they draw just over $100,000 per year from a $4 million restricted endowment, and rely on admissions fees “to keep the lights on.”
“There’s no greed. What gets me fired up about these plans is when I see the impact it’s going to have on the economic future of this area. The schools are on the verge of closing, the hospital closed … I see tourism as an antidote.”
Last week, seeking to halt blasting on the site “that will permanently and irreversibly impact BWRD’s public water supply,” Portland attorney William Harwood, on behalf of the water district, asked Superior Court Justice Daniel Billings to issue a temporary restraining order against the town of Boothbay, hoping to force the town to stop work at the site until the Board of Appeals considers it on Feb. 28.
Harwood argued, among other points, that the gardens’ application to the town states it is an educational facility and a museum, so must meet standards for both, and museums are prohibited in the watershed.
Billings said he was not convinced and denied the restraining order. Susan Mello, natural resources program director for the water district, said Monday the water district has no plans to appeal the ruling.
We can’t point to anything and call it illegal,” Jason Anthony said in a Jan. 20 email. “We can point to what we believe are mistakes made by DEP or the planning board in assessing [Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ proposal] — thus our appeals — but those are based on our interpretation of the rules and what we think is best for the town, the state and the environment.”
“You know, something that happens next door shouldn’t make you move, but if we could, I would consider it,” Jodie Anthony said Sunday. “But now our property is significantly devalued, and it should be put into conservation land for the watershed anyway, and after 50 years and at our age, it would be very difficult … so we’ll hang on and fight.”