November 21, 2018
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Eminent domain looms over campground near small Maine airport

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Pam Brackett stands in a grove of pine trees planted by her father at Chewonki Campground in Wiscassett in this Aug. 20, 2014, file photo.

WISCASSET, Maine — Four years after Pam Brackett and her sister, Ann Beck, first learned that tall pines and other trees on the campground they inherited from their father were creating a potential safety hazard at the nearby Wiscasset Airport, negotiations over an easement appear at a standoff.

Town officials say discussion of taking the easement by eminent domain could begin as soon as this month.

Brackett and town officials, with their respective lawyers, met July 18 to discuss terms of the proposed easement, but following the meeting Brackett said, “The town made us an offer, but it’s not even close” to acceptable.

“We’re all trying really hard to have as positive an outcome as we can for both parties,” Brackett said. “What we want to do is to just move forward in a really positive position and be compensated for the loss of a good part of our business. They’re going to take half the campground — not the land, but the trees that cover half the sites.”

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A camper stands in a grove of pine trees at Chewonki Campground in Wiscasset on Wednesday in this Aug. 20, 2014, file photo.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said for years that failure to cut trees on about three acres at the campground — Brackett already granted an easement on one acre years ago — and install navigation lights on the 47-site campground would jeopardize future federal funding not only to address safety concerns at the airport, but also for other MDOT projects.

The imperiled trees include many 25- to 70-foot conifers and deciduous trees, and 20 towering white pines, hand-planted by Brackett’s father along the campground’s main road.

Brackett’s attorney, Jim Hockensen, wrote to the town on May 29 that the campground would consider an easement for the price of $320,000, in addition to a number of conditions.

Those conditions include that the campground be designated a “No Fly Zone” on FAA and other charts, nonessential approaches to the runway nearest the campground would be banned overnight, that trees to be cut would be clearly marked and reviewed, tree-cutting would take place in the off-season and, most notably, a new septic system would be installed to accommodate sites converted from tent sites to RV sites due to the removal of shade trees.

But many of those conditions were deemed “impracticable” by the FAA, Gail B. Lattrell, the administration’s acting director of the airports division, wrote on June 26.

More importantly, she wrote that the FAA is limited to negotiating an easement for fair market value and the $320,000 request is “significantly above” that, she wrote.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The Wiscasset Municipal Airport

Wiscasset Town Manager Marian Anderson said Monday that she could not divulge what Brackett and Beck have been offered for the easement, but said it arises from the town’s appraisal. Ninety percent of the amount would be paid for with federal funds, with the town and state each picking up 5 percent.

She said the town could consider a potential septic easement in the future, but that a townwide vote would also be required for that.

If no resolution is reached by the Aug. 21 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, the board will likely consider taking the trees by eminent domain, Anderson said Monday.

Such a vote would have to be approved by selectmen and then by voters at a town referendum.

Lattrell wrote to Anderson that the FAA is “concerned that community support for eminent domain would be unsuccessful,” and asked her how the town planned to meet safety requirements for the airport until that vote, and after the vote if it is unsuccessful.

When the issue emerged four years ago, numerous residents and organizations wrote to the town opposing various parts of the proposed easement, including the lighting, which the Chewonki Foundation said would alter the “character of the campground;” affect migratory birds, insects and other wildlife; and potentially harm local businesses.

But Brackett said the town, and the FAA, seem to be “pretty adamant and unmoving. We’re just a little apprehensive about how we can continue.”

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