Environment Spotlight

Trails, rails, and more: Royal River Conservation Trust and Casco Bay Trail Alliance update select board

| Joanne Cole |

Trails, rails, projects, and possibilities were the focus Wednesday evening as the select board heard presentations from Alan Stearns of Royal River Conservation Trust (RRCT), and Dick Woodbury of the Casco Bay Trail Alliance. Board chair Peter Bragdon described the special September 1 board meeting as a chance to “bring everybody up to speed.”

Royal River Conservation Trust. Alan Stearns, executive director of RRCT, led off. Stearns had shared a detailed memorandum with the board, posted on the RRCT website, detailing the Trust’s extensive conservation holdings and past preservation partnerships in New Gloucester and current activities. Given that background, Stearns focused his remarks on active conversations and projects.

Among newer items, RRCT is exploring whether a town-owned parcel on Morse Road could offer primitive trail access for fishing and kayak/canoe hand carry-in, Stearns said. Because the site includes a well-head for Pineland Farms, planning will prioritize protection of the drinking water well-head.

Stearns’s focus was RRCT’s recent purchase, from members of the Chandler family, of 174 acres in the Lower Village. With previous acquisitions, RRCT now holds about 300 acres in the extended Intervale-to-Village area, Stearns said, “a growing block of conservation land we’re very proud of and is very significant.”

Stearns said RRCT is ramping up “nuts and bolts” conversations with stakeholders about the new parcel and pursuing fundraising “to do justice to the land we just bought.” RRCT fundraising is proceeding independently of Gray-New Gloucester Little League, he noted. Trail improvements are envisioned, and the Interurban, the former trolley line now used as a snowmobile trail, needs significant maintenance and structural work. Resident Field Rider later commented that this suggests more-active recreational use of the RRCT land, very different in his view from conserving it as now used. He urged the select board and other town committees to actively solicit community input and heed concerns about RRCT’s plans.

Regarding RRCT’s new neighbor, Gray-New Gloucester Little League (GNGLL), which acquired 14 acres in the Intervale with the July 16 land transfers, Stearns said GNGLL took its parcel with covenants to ensure parking and access for hunters and trail walkers and with restrictions limiting uses to outdoor recreation, community agriculture, and similar activities. GNGLL is proceeding “similarly and separately” with fundraising for its own plans and needs, he said. Later, resident Charles Gauvin urged the select board and planning board to take an active role regarding any plans by GNGLL to develop ballfields there. “It’s incumbent on the leadership of the town” Gauvin said, “to bring the public in” so that residents’ concerns are “really resolved.”

As for RRCT’s new 174-acre parcel, because it interfaces with the Village in a significant way, as Stearns put it, RRCT will continue to seek advice from the select board, relevant town committees, and others on issues like parking and road crossings. A conversation to update the Environmental Resources Committee was on deck, and another meeting set for next week with town manager Christine Landes and MDOT to discuss traffic safety where the Interurban crosses Route 231 below the Village Store.

The town, Stearns suggested, can plan just that road crossing or consider it as part of a comprehensive approach to safety in the Lower Village area. Similarly, the Grange Hall Road lot, a former-Interurban parcel across Route 231, might figure into a larger vision with RRCT’s land and the Village, he said. Now that voters have authorized the town to accept the parcel from CMP, the Grange Hall lot could be a trail segment, serve as parking for the Village or for access for the 174-acre RRCT resource, or possibly be a link in a larger community trail network extending to the north across Cobb’s Bridge Road, as the snowmobile trail is now. Whatever the town’s ultimate vision, the Grange Hall parcel “is a tool in your toolkit,” Stearns said.

Casco Bay Trail System. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth resident and volunteer board member with Casco Bay Trail Alliance and the East Coast Greenway Alliance, shared a rails-to-trails or rails-until-trails possibility for the unused St. Lawrence and Atlantic corridor that runs through New Gloucester. Woodbury wanted the select board to consider joining other towns in requesting formal state review of the possible trail plan.

Woodbury started with the end goal: a 3000-mile multi-use trail stretching from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, this would be routed through rather than away from major population centers, in order to maximize public health, community recreation, and emission-free transportation opportunities. About 1000 miles are now in place, Woodbury said, with several segments in Maine: 30 miles of Eastern Trail from South Portland to Kennebunk, 83 miles from Ellsworth toward Calais, and other, shorter segments around the state.

The Casco Bay Trail Alliance was formed to explore where trails could be located in our area to connect nearby communities and tie in with state and East Coast plans. State-owned unused rail corridors turn out to be among the best prospects, Woodbury explained. In New Gloucester, the former St. Lawrence and Atlantic line is one such possibility. (It passes under 231 near the former Penney Road store, crosses 231 near Woodman Road, and crosses Cobbs Bridge Road by the Royal River bridge.) The corridor runs from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn, through Yarmouth and New Gloucester, Woodbury said, and locally through and by conserved lands.

If the town is interested in the St. Lawrence and Atlantic as a rail trail, Woodbury said, it can join area communities in requesting state Rail Corridor Advisory Council review of the idea. Those requests trigger a process where advocacy groups “all come to the table” and present their ideas for the corridor – for example, for snowmobiling, passenger rail or freight, or a walk-and-bike trail. The council evaluates proposals and advises MDOT as to best public purpose, Woodbury explained.

The board had questions. One was about using the St. Lawrence and Atlantic for passenger rail instead. Woodbury said, “We’re not anti-train at all.” He pointed out that a different, active rail line runs through New Gloucester and makes more sense for expanded passenger rail or freight, Woodbury suggested. That one connects with northern points, already goes to the Portland transportation center, is used by Amtrak, and rolls on to Boston and beyond. By contrast, the former St. Lawrence and Atlantic line dead-ends at the soon-to-be-former B&M plant.

Asked about funding, Woodbury said the trail is likely to end up funded about 80 percent from state and federal sources, with an initial cost-share coming from the communities themselves, typically municipal contributions and private fund-raising. He hasn’t yet closely studied fundraising for this project but said he expects it would be a very popular trail and there would be “a lot of interest and private support for it.”

Woodbury will share a template resolution that the select board can adapt if they decide to join a request for the advisory process regarding a rail trail on the St. Lawrence and Atlantic corridor. Ideally, he suggested, weighing in soon would be helpful, as the state considers whether to let an unused freight easement on the line expire in late October.

The board took no action Wednesday night on either the Casco Bay rail corridor or RRCT matters. But as board chair Peter Bragdon said as Alan Stearns wrapped up RRCT’s presentation, “We’ll be talking more, for sure.” That’s likely true for both organizations as their projects move forward.

To read more about RRCT’s recent land acquisition and plans, click here. For maps and information about the Casco Bay Trail Alliance, click here. To view the September 1 select board meeting video, click here.