FREEPORT — As a member of the Save Our Neighborhoods Coalition, Jessica McCurdy doesn’t see the need to build an indoor-outdoor soccer complex in the shadow of Hedgehog Mountain.

McCurdy and her family regularly hike, snowshoe and cross-country ski on the trails that course through 250 acres of town-owned land behind their home on Hunter Road. She doesn’t understand why town officials would let a soccer club build an indoor arena in a rural, residential area.

“It’s already being used for outdoor recreation,” McCurdy said. “A soccer arena would be fine in an industrial zone, but it doesn’t make sense to cover recreational trails with a big, metal building.”

She also doesn’t understand why she learned about the project from neighbors, when a zoning battle broke out last fall — two years after town officials started negotiating with Seacoast United Maine.

“I got a flyer in my mailbox,” McCurdy said. “You’d think I’d hear about it from the town first.”

Growing controversy over the town’s pending land deal with the soccer club has resurrected old complaints among Freeport citizens who believe town government favors development and commercial interests over residents’ concerns.

The Seacoast proposal has fanned talk about done deals and who really knows what’s best for the town. The dispute has put town officials and Seacoast representatives on the defensive and pushed the Town Council to consider ways to increase government transparency and improve communication.

The Seacoast proposal and the related Freeport Fields and Trails project on Hunter Road were discussed at many council meetings, starting in late 2009. Councilors and others wanted to increase the number of playing fields in town. But public comment on Seacoast, in particular, was limited and largely negative before the council approved the land deal a year later.

On Tuesday, council Chairman Jim Cassida plans to hold a brainstorming session with his colleagues, looking for better ways to inform residents about what’s going on at Town Hall and around Freeport.

Cassida, who represents the Hedgehog Mountain area, said the council may try to make better use of the town’s website. He now has a Facebook page and has started sending notices to an email list of 600 townspeople.

Councilor Sara Gideon this month started holding regular “office” hours at the Bow Street Market cafe, making herself available for casual conversations with constituents.

Cassida and Gideon said they hope to address complaints from McCurdy and other townspeople who say they heard about the Seacoast proposal too late.

“We hear a lot of different perspectives on issues,” Cassida said. “I take it all into consideration before I make a decision. If some people don’t like the decision I make, they may think I didn’t listen to them. When people feel they weren’t even invited to the table, you compound that.”

Happened before

It’s not the first time townspeople have felt left out of the decision-making process.

Susan Campbell, a former councilor, was drawn into the fray of town politics 11 years ago, when a Planning Board committee produced a plan to develop “West Freeport Village.” The plan called for building 800 housing units on 500 acres, including Campbell’s 100-acre farm on Hunter Road.

Campbell and her husband Joe learned about the plan when the committee presented it to the public — two years into the planning process.

“Never once during that time did they approach a single owner of that 500 acres, and 300 acres were in the hands of three owners,” Campbell said. “I firmly believe if we had not been there that night, it would have happened, because it was on the fast track.”

Campbell and others fought the project for a year, eventually defeating it by town referendum. The town charter now bans the council from designating a “growth area” west of Interstate 295.

“Here we are again,” said Campbell, who went on to serve two years on the council. “We have a group of citizens worried about the impact of a project on their lives and they feel they aren’t being heard.”

Not everyone thinks there’s a problem.

Jeremy Clough and his family recently moved to Freeport, in part for all the amenities in town, from an active community center to the many retail outlets that have opened around L.L.Bean in recent decades. He lives on Holbrook Street, in the village center.

At a council workshop last week, Clough was the lone voice in a roomful of angry people. He said he’d like to have a place in town where his two young children could play soccer in the winter instead of sitting inside playing video games.

“There are so many ways townspeople would benefit,” Clough said after the meeting. “And it’s completely compatible with the fields, the trails and the town’s transfer station that’s already out there. There’s even a campground across the street.

Examining the process

The Save Our Neighborhoods Coalition formed in November to fight the $4 million Seacoast project when it came before the Planning Board. After hearing from neighbors and reviewing the town’s comprehensive plan, the board recommended that the council reject any zoning changes that would allow the soccer complex to be built in the rural, residential area.

Since then, coalition members and others have been scrutinizing how the Seacoast deal developed over the last two years. Many said they were surprised when councilors admitted at last week’s workshop that they didn’t know Seacoast needed a zoning change when they approved the land deal in December 2010 and amended it last April.

Coalition members also question how the Seacoast proposal came to be dependent on the $2.3 million Freeport Fields and Trails project now under way on Hunter Road. The council never held a public hearing on the decision to link the two projects.

The 37-acre Freeport Fields and Trails project was proposed by a group of residents led by developer David Latulippe, who is board president of Freeport Economic Development Corp.

The fields and trails project also was promoted by the FEDC, which is funded by the town and housed at Town Hall. Cassida’s also on the FEDC board, along with Councilor Katherine Arno and Planning Board Chairwoman Wendy Caisse.

The council decided last April, after hearing strong support at a public hearing, to spend $2.3 million in surplus funds to buy the land on Hunter Road and build seven playing fields. Latulippe’s group had secured a sale agreement with the former landowner and developed a plan to build the fields. The town hired a contractor through competitive bidding, Cassida said.

Little input

Later, at the same April 12 meeting, the council voted unanimously to amend the Seacoast agreement to include a long-term lease of part of the Freeport Fields and Trails land, which is next to the Seacoast site.

First approved in December 2010, the Seacoast agreement would give the soccer club 12 acres of town-owned land on Hedgehog Mountain Road worth an estimated $300,000. In return, the town would get some public use of the indoor soccer arena and one of two outdoor artificial-turf fields — field time worth nearly $300,000 based on the soccer club’s costs, said Seacoast spokesman Mike Healy of Freeport.

At some point — it’s not clear when from town records — Seacoast learned that its site was too wet to build the soccer complex as proposed and meet environmental regulations.

The April 12 amendments to the Seacoast agreement would allow the soccer club to build one of its outdoor fields on three acres of the Freeport Fields and Trails property. The soccer club would lease the three acres from the town for a nominal annual fee.

The council amended the Seacoast agreement without holding a public hearing or taking public comment. According to the minutes of the April 12 meeting, Town Manager Dale Olmstead described the changes as “minor.”

“They decided what the greater good is without properly notifying neighbors or anyone else,” said Tom Ross, a Hunter Road resident. “Once the two field projects became commingled, there was no public comment sought (by the council) on the Seacoast proposal.”

In fact, the council held no public hearing and heard minimal public comment on the Seacoast proposal before approving the first version of the land deal in December 2010, according to meeting minutes.

During two council meetings that October, a total of 11 residents spoke, each saying they opposed or had serious questions about the pending agreement. There was no public comment on the Seacoast proposal on Dec. 7, 2010, when the council unanimously approved the agreement.

The town charter requires the council to hold a public hearing to pass or change an ordinance; the Seacoast agreement called for no ordinance action. Public hearings must be advertised in a local newspaper, in addition to being listed on the council’s agenda.

“We followed all the rules (with the Seacoast proposal),” Cassida said. “We need to consider different ways of noticing people. Our discussion on Tuesday will be grounds for improving the political discourse in town.”

Despite the current controversy, Seacoast representatives say they still hope to build their complex on Hedgehog Mountain Road, but they’re considering other sites in Freeport and other towns.

Paul Willis, executive director of the New Hampshire-based Seacoast United soccer, lacrosse and field hockey clubs, said his organization had similar struggles when it developed facilities in Epping and Hampton, N.H.

“It’s typical that it takes a while to sort these things out, Willis said. “Sometimes when there’s a little bit of controversy, other people hear about it and wish to see if they can work something out in their town. It’s just par for the course and part of doing due diligence.”

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