AUGUSTA — A Maine National Guard proposal to build a new headquarters building on land next to the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in north Augusta has won Planning Board approval and construction could start next summer, though a group of veterans hopes to stop the plan.
The Guard plans to build a new 100,000-square-foot building between Civic Center Drive and Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery, to serve as the Joint Force Headquarters for the Army and Air Guard in Maine.
The $32 million building will house the Guard’s administrative office functions, most of which are now at Camp Keyes next to the Augusta State Airport. Around 200 Guard workers could report there for work, including on monthly drill weekends.
Camp Keyes will remain in the Guard’s hands, with a large shop used for heavy equipment maintenance, warehouse, military museum, print plant and some training space remaining. However, older office buildings at Camp Keyes will be demolished.
Construction of the new building is funded in the federal budget for 2015, one of only seven approved such projects in the budget, according to Lt. Col. Gregory Leimbach, director of facilities for the Maine National Guard. However there’s always a chance, with spending cutbacks, the project could lose its funding, though Leimbach remains optimistic.
“It looks good that it’s going to get funded,” he said. “We’ll receive the funding in 2015 and then we’d send it out to bid. So we’ll probably have groundbreaking around this time next year, possibly a little sooner.”
Army veteran Don McIntire, of Farmington, figures that gives him about a year to fight against the project.
McIntire, whose parents are buried in the older section of the adjacent cemetery, said he considers the forested grounds where the new Guard headquarters will be built to be part of the cemetery, and, thus hallowed ground that should remain as part of the cemetery.
“As far as I’m concerned it is part of the cemetery,” McIntire said. “I see no reason why they should encroach on the veterans cemetery to build a new headquarters, when there’s so much land they could build on in Maine. Losing that part of the veterans cemetery is going to be something that bothers me the rest of my days.”
Leimbach said McIntire’s concerns are unwarranted, noting the new building will not be visible from the adjacent cemetery, and “a good solid buffer of woodland” will be maintained between the new building, the cemetery, and homes to the north of the site along Civic Center Drive.
He noted there are cemeteries visible outside some of Camp Keyes buildings now.
McIntire said state officials have been dismissive of his concerns and reluctant to share information about the project with him. He vowed to keep fighting against it and said he’s heard from numerous people, many of them also veterans, who are also opposed to the building’s location on what he considers to be the cemetery’s grounds. He said a brochure about the cemetery includes a photograph of the land where the headquarters will be built.
Leimbach said the building is needed and will replace outdated inefficient buildings at Camp Keyes that are costly to heat and maintain.
The entrance to the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery would be moved about 75 feet south as part of the construction project so the cemetery and headquarters would share an at a new traffic signal that would be installed at Darin Drive, which is the access road to the Augusta Business Park. The new combined cemetery and Guard entrance would be moved directly across Civic Center Drive from Darin Drive.
With extensive development in the north Augusta area in recent years, the traffic signal, which will have turning lanes, is necessary because of the increased traffic in the area, both from the new Guard building and previous development, state officials said. There are several state offices and other businesses on Darin Drive and connected Anthony Avenue.
The new intersection is also slated for construction in 2015, likely before the Guard project starts, Leimbach said.
The intersection work is expected to cost about $400,000, according to Brian Keezer, multi-modal project manager for the state Department of Transportation. He said the signal is required based upon the amount of traffic projected to be using the new intersection.
The new Army and Air Guard headquarters, according to Diane Morabito, a traffic engineer with Maine Traffic Resources, would put an additional 208 vehicles on Civic Center Drive during the peak morning weekday commuting hour when it is fully built out, and 200 during the evening peak weekday commute.
The Guard is expected to pay a $50,000 impact fee for the project, to be used to help pay for the new intersection construction.
Keezer said at this time the plan for the intersection is to allow the Comfort Inn and 99 Restaurant next to the new intersection location to keep its driveway which connects to Civic Center Drive, but restrict traffic using it to right turns in, and right turns out. A new entrance to the motel property will be added to the entrance road to the cemetery and Guard site, allowing people to leave the motel or restaurant onto the entrance road, then turn in either direction at the new intersection with a traffic signal.
Keezer said the DOT had not yet acquired a right of way from the motel property owners needed for the project, because the project design is not far enough along yet.
While Guard members would report to the building on some weekend drills, actual active military training is not expected to take place there. That type of training, Leimbach said, would take place at Camp Keyes, at a training area in Gardiner, or elsewhere.
The Augusta Planning Board approved the project last week, according to Corey Vose, chairman of the Planning Board.
Leimbach said the only condition placed on the board’s approval last week was that the Guard not test an emergency generator at the building other than during the day on weekdays.
Neighbors expressed concern about noise from the generator and a plan to at least occasionally land a helicopter on the site to fly the state’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. James D. Campbell, if he needs to be somewhere rapidly. Officials said the helicopter would generally only fly in and out of the site in emergency situations.
“The helicopter would be rarely used,” Leimbach said. “General Campbell has been adjutant general for one-and-a-half-years, and he’s never had to use the helicopter.”
The site is in the city’s Planned Development District, where government services are a conditional use, subject to a major development review by the Planning Board. It will be built on about 43 wooded and undeveloped acres of the 165-acre cemetery property.
Construction of the building, 230-space parking lot for it, and a guard shack by the entrance, is expected to take about two years.
The construction will take place even as Guard officials are at least discussing a proposal to restructure the Guard in Maine, and possibly exchanging Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry unit. Leimbach said regardless of what happens with that proposal, the Guard will still need a joint force headquarters, and the building’s purpose would be the same.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647