BOOTHBAY — An ambitious plan to expand the popular Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has been met with concern from the local water district and resistance from neighboring landowners, one of whom called it a “Disneyland ambition by a nonprofit that has abandoned its conservation-minded principles.”

The controversy has prompted town officials to twice postpone making a final decision on a building permit, although they will try again at a special meeting on Dec. 15.

Expanding a garden – especially an increasingly popular one for visitors – might seem a relatively uncontroversial move, and garden officials have plotted the major expansion of the facility for years. Those plans inched closer to reality in recent months after the gardens applied for and received permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

But critics worry that the garden plans are too big and too commercial for the quiet coastal community. As more people in town have started to pay attention, more questions about the project, its scope and potential environmental impact have emerged.

Jason Anthony, whose family owns 65 acres abutting the gardens, said his family, including parents Vaughn and Joanne Anthony, who have lived there for 50 years, would be fine with something a little more modest.

The Anthonys have been the biggest critics and they acknowledge that their opposition is in part personal. But the issues have moved beyond “not-in-my-backyard” complaints. Other neighbors, along with officials with the Boothbay Region Water District, have expressed concerns, too, that the expansion could adversely affect the watershed and Knickerbocker Lake, the town’s secondary water supply.

Sue Mello, who manages the watershed program for the district, said the project has flown under the radar in Boothbay because of the attention over plans for a roundabout on Route 27 that have been pushed by the wealthy but polarizing businessman Paul Coulombe.

Mello said she and others have been trying to work with the gardens on alternatives.

“I hope it’s not too far along to consider changes,” she said. “There really has been no discussion on the local level about this.”

The concerns have been loud enough for the town’s planning board – the last hurdle for the gardens – to twice table approval on a building permit. The board will try again at the special meeting on Dec. 15.

William Cullina, executive director of the botanical gardens, said he’s not worried that the project will be derailed or altered significantly.

“They are kind of throwing everything at us,” he said of the Anthonys. “But functionally, we’ve done everything we can to accommodate the neighbors.”

No matter the outcome, the debate over expanding the venue is the latest flash point for the town, which is changing more rapidly than some residents would like.

“I think there is a lot going on in Boothbay right now and it’s fair to say that not everybody is happy with every aspect,” said Town Manager Dan Bryer Jr. “But it’s our job to follow the process and make the best judgment.”

Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer. Friday, June 14, 2013. Visitors sit and walk in the Lerner Garden of the Fve Senses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

In a June 2013 file photograph, visitors sit and walk in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer

‘MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN WE EVER IMAGINED’

The 270-acre botanical gardens, which opened nine years ago on the western side of the Boothbay peninsula overlooking the Back River, have become a destination for tourists and Mainers alike.

In the first year, roughly 40,000 people visited, mostly in the summer months. This year, the gardens are on pace to draw 160,000 customers, aided in part by an immensely successful late-fall event called Gardens Aglow, now in its second year.

“We’ve been a lot more successful here than we ever imagined,” Cullina said. “It really wasn’t built with that kind of capacity in mind, so we embarked on this 20-year plan. The last thing we want is for people to come and be turned away.”

The first phase of the expansion would be done gradually, beginning with paving a significant portion of the property to improve parking and double the number of spaces, to about 900. The parking lot would be massive, especially for the area, similar in size to a big box store.

Eventually, the gardens plan to build a new visitors center and a 22,000-square-foot conservatory, the largest in New England. The visitors center would be three stories and would include office space, restrooms and a lobby connecting to the gift shop. The conservatory would, in part, help ensure that the gardens are more than just a seasonal attraction.

“Saturday (Nov. 26) was the busiest day we’ve ever had,” Cullina said. “It shows that this idea that you roll up the sidewalks in winter in coastal towns just isn’t true.”

But the expansion, estimated at about $30 million, has bothered some residents.

“They have a big endowment but they are a nonprofit. Can they sustain this growth?” Jason Anthony said. “They want to compete with gardens that have big urban population centers to draw from.”

Jason’s brother, Kevin Anthony, runs a local construction company. He said many of his clients are big supporters of the gardens. But he can’t stay silent.

“If they had engaged with us, good management could have avoided all this,” he said. “But they don’t feel they need to negotiate. They seem to feel that some of the rules just don’t apply to them.”

Paula Ragsdale Arsenault, who has lived on Knickerbocker Lake for 40 years, opposes the expansion plan as well.

“It now feels like a theme park, far from their original mission statement,” she said, agreeing with the Anthonys that the gardens have failed in community outreach.

According to a permit submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the project would “permanently alter 62,621 square feet of freshwater wetlands, indirectly alter 12,124 square feet of freshwater and coastal wetlands due to shading effects of the wetlands, convert 3,211 square feet of forested freshwater wetland to emergent wetland, and permanently alter 262,935 square feet of critical terrestrial habitat of eight significant vernal pools.”

Also, a massive leach field planned would likely create runoff that could threaten Knickerbocker Lake, a body of water that already is at risk to new development, according to the DEP.

“The environmental degradation is astonishing,” Jason Anthony said.

Cullina said the plans were thoroughly vetted by federal and state officials, though, and neither required major revisions.

Still, at a November meeting, Mello urged planning board members to take a closer look at the potential impact. She said conclusions reached by the Army Corps of Engineers this year during a site review were “approximations of reality, sold as reality.” She also pointed out that the Army Corps’ own staff member called the environmental impact “as big as he’s ever seen.”

“I’m not against the gardens at all. I think it’s great,” Mello said. “Honestly, though, I don’t even know how this ended up in a residential zone to begin with. But we just want to see if we can help make it more acceptable.”

AN UNPRECEDENTED DEVELOPMENT

With approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection, only local approval remains.

The Anthonys have filed an appeal of the DEP permit that is pending. They also plan to appeal the planning board decision, if it’s in the gardens’ favor.

“We understand that it’s an awfully big project to just say no to, but they could compromise,” Kevin Anthony said.

The water district, in a letter to town planning board members in October, outlined a series of possible compromises, including relocating any new structures outside the watershed and reducing the size of the parking lot or relocating it outside the watershed. Mello also said the gardens could install their own sewer pipes, which would eliminate the need for a massive leach field. But the Anthonys also would like a buffer between their property and the edge of the gardens property, where the parking lot would be paved.

Cullina said the lot is big, but it won’t just be a flat stretch of asphalt. It will be sloped and broken up with evergreen trees.

“One thing we know here is how to make plants grow,” he said.

The director said he hopes the project moves forward soon.

“All we can do is be respectful and keep reminding people that what we’re doing is trying to bring joy to this region,” Cullina said. “But we’re a major employer, too. We’ve got 100 people on staff now and that could be up to 200 by the time this is all finished.”

Jason Anthony said the ambitious expansion of the botanical gardens is similar to Coulombe’s renovation of the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, which has been lauded by some and criticized by others. It was Coulombe who pushed for the roundabout, which was approved narrowly in a townwide vote last month.

Anthony agreed that the gardens’ expansion has been overshadowed by the roundabout debate.

“Residents scarcely know an expansion is planned, and I think very few know how unprecedented a development of this kind would be for the town,” he said. “We came in late to a fight in which we are definitely an underdog.”

But their complaints have not gone unnoticed.

The planning board voted 5-0 on Oct. 19 to table a decision on the building permit, saying it needed to conduct a site review.

The board then voted unanimously on Nov. 16 to table a second time so members could have more time to review new information submitted. An outside consultant was hired by the town to look at the potential impact of stormwater runoff. That report has not been returned to town officials.

The planning board has scheduled another meeting for Dec. 15, although there is no deadline for a decision.

Mello said she’s hopeful that the town considers scaling back the plans but she also said local zoning ordinances are antiquated. Members may not have much authority to push back even if they want to.

Correction: This story was updated on Dec. 4 to correct an inaccurate description of the plans for the garden. A 22,000-square-foot conservatory is planned, not an observatory.