FREEPORT — When the rhythmic whooshing used to come over the tree tops, Kathleen Meade joked with her neighbor, Charles Tompson, that living in the Elm Street area sounded like being near the ocean.

But since the Maine Department of Transportation removed 37 acres of trees along Interstate 295 in Freeport last month, she and others have lamented the loss of privacy and a natural sound buffer that has made their homes visible from the highway and exposed them to the constant, increased sounds of passing traffic. Without the scrub pines and undergrowth to filter the noise, the sound that reminded neighbors of lapping waves or flowing water has become the distinct thrum of passing cars and trucks.

“It was like living next to a river,” Tompson said. “Now it’s definitely worse.”

Although the tree cutting project was announced by the DOT and was deemed necessary to make the roadway safer by increasing sight lines and bringing in sunlight to help melt winter ice and snow, officials never reached out to Freeport residents before it began, or considered leaving some foliage as a buffer instead of cutting to the property line.

Now, the town is planning to build a berm between the highway and Elm Street, Tompson is planning on spending $4,200 for a wooden fence to block his view of the highway, and a local lawmaker who called the project shocking has arranged for a DOT official to come to town to hear residents’ concerns.

The cutting was so extensive that passing motorists and area residents have speculated about ulterior motives, ranging from preparing for an unannounced widening project to selling timber to help balance the state budget. The theories have been met with chuckles by DOT officials, who describe the project as long overdue maintenance.

The project cost about $205,000, and was performed by Lovell-based Drew Corp. As part of the bid agreement, Drew Corp was allowed to keep the timber, most of which was chipped and sold for about $6,000 to fuel a bio-mass boiler. The remaining saw logs yielded about $1,500, said Rob Drew, owner of Drew Corp.

John Cannell, DOT’s southern region manager, said the goal of the cutting project is to convert the area to grass.

“What we’re trying to do is get it back to a nice maintainable state, to get it to a point where it was something we can mow or brush hog,” Cannell said.

RESIDENTS FEEL FRUSTRATED

But the abrupt change of scenery has left Meade and others feeling frustrated with the agency.

“The Department of Transportation can do whatever it wants, I’m told,” Meade said.

She is not alone in her anger, and in the coming weeks, residents will get a chance to voice their opinions directly to a state transportation official.

Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, after seeing the clear-cutting herself one morning while driving onto the highway, said she contacted the transportation agency and arranged for a Maine Department of Transportation official to attend a Freeport Town Council meeting June 16.

Gideon said that like many in town, she learned of the cutting when she drove onto the highway one day last month.

“It was shocking,” she said. “It was moving extremely quickly. Immediately I had not just constituents calling me, but fellow legislators driving past there.”

STUMPS, DIVOTS REMAIN

Elm Street runs perpendicular to Main Street, and terminates in a dead-end overlooking the highway, with the closest home on the cul-de-sac positioned about 30 yards from the fence line, and about 80 yards from the northbound travel lanes. Separating the fence and the road’s edge is about 100 feet of a deep ravine, now pock-marked with fresh stumps and divots.

Only a rusty chain-link fence separates the homes from the state’s land and the highway. Freeport town officials are searching for a remedy, but have found few options because nearly all of the land on the neighborhood side of the fence is private property.

Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph said the town is planning to spend about $2,500 to construct a berm at the end of Elm Street to help mitigate the noise. Work is expected to begin at the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

Al Presgraves, Freeport’s town engineer, said he foresaw the problems before the DOT began the project, and suggested the state leave a few feet of trees at the property line.

“Their response was, ‘Well, that’s too hard to do,’ basically,” Presgraves said. “I warned them.”