Mela Heestand, co-owner of the Desert of Maine in Freeport. File photo

FREEPORT — The owners of Freeport’s Desert of Maine cleared their last major hurdle before starting in earnest their plans for a multi-million-dollar sweeping revitalization aimed at turning Maine’s only “desert” into a cultural, educational and natural hub. 

Doug and Mela Heestand, who purchased the property in late 2018, are in the midst of a multi-year, nearly $2.5 million Desert of Maine revamp. Earlier this week, they  received approval for a town zoning change in the formation of a “Nature-Based and Art Overlay” district to help further their efforts. 

The Desert of Maine, which receives too much rainfall to be classified as an actual desert, consists of a 20-30-acres of silt – not sand– that functioned as a successful farm until overgrazing sheep caused widespread erosion, exposing the silt beneath the topsoil. 

It became a tourist attraction nearly 100 years ago in 1925. The Desert was allowed to continue as such after Freeport adopted zoning in the 1970s, despite its location in a rural residential zone. In order to give the desert the facelift, the Heestands needed the town to approve the zoning changes. Now, following the council’s approval earlier this week, the project’s finer details — the fire codes, the buffering, the parking lot siz e—  just need to go before the project review board. 

“We’re super excited,” Mela Heestand, a co-owner of the Desert of Maine, said Thursday, noting the “overwhelming support” from the community. “We feel a responsibility now to make it as good as it can be.” 

Heestand said that by next season guests should be returning to a greatly enhanced visitor experience. 

“There will be a lot more to do,” she said. “It’s still a place of natural beauty but we’re trying to make sure there’s something for everyone.”

The long-range vision for the property includes the restoration of the historic Tuttle barn into an event and performance venue (featuring a glass wall looking out over the dunes), guided and and self-guided tours (with sculptures placed throughout the dunes), ecology, geology and history-focused educational programming, collaborative programs with local arts and nature organizations, family-friendly activities and a modernized campground with eco-friendly A-frame cabins for campers in place of the RV sites of old. 

Thursday, Heestand said they also plan to build a reconstructed farmhouse as a sort of living museum, much like Massachusetts’ Old Sturbridge Village, which replicates an 1830s village.

Work has already begun on an “immersive, imaginative” gemstone village in the forest, a maze-like activity for children to find the gemstones left behind by little woodland creatures. This will replace the desert’s longtime gemstone hunt in the dunes— a beloved practice but one that was at odds with the desert’s new educational mission. People often thought the gems were a natural feature of the landscape, Mela Heestand said, so this new iteration of the tradition will be more in keeping with the Desert of Maine’s new platform.

Last year, they built a natural-materials playground, gutted and refurbished the bathhouse, built a cafe in the visitors center and converted the space above into an art gallery.

They also reduced the number of campsites by nearly half to give campers more space, and cleaned up trash and fallen trees in the process. 

Their dream will cost Freeport so little, if anything at all,” resident John Albright said of the plans, “but it can give back so much.”

Councilors were emphatic in their approval of the project, one Tawni Whitney said is “exactly what we need in Freeport.” 

“This is the kind of thing that will distinguish Freeport,” Councilor Ed Bradley said. “It’s unbelievable that two people are doing this on their own with their own resources,” and is “absolutely right in the heart” of what various groups have been trying to do in town for years. 


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