CAPE ELIZABETH – From 1899 to 1963, Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park was a military installation, built to protect the state from sudden, foreign attack. It’s perhaps ironic than that in the past few decades, the site has been subject to a slow, creeping invasion from foreign plants.

On Wednesday, town councilors received an arboretum master plan, which calls for the eradication of invasive plants, including sumac, bittersweet, black swallowwort and Japanese knotwood from the 90-acre site, to be replaced by 15 landscaped areas. Those spots, yet to be fully designed, include a nut grove, a fruits region and a children’s garden. Already, in the park’s Cliffside area, where volunteers tore out the invasive plants, a grass amphitheater has been created.

That clearing and sculpting cost about $100,000, according to Lynn Shaffer, chairwoman of the Arboretum Master Plan Committee. Full rehabilitation, to include installation of stone retaining walls, steps and pavers, as well as replanting of native species next spring, is expected to cost $350,000. Meanwhile, the full arboretum project is projected to top $3.5 million.

That’s no small potatoes for something that’s expected to be done primarily through volunteer work and private donations.

The arboretum is a project of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2000 to establish an endowment for park maintenance. That goal has yet to bear fruit, says Foundation president Stephen Bates. The town budgeted $288,000 for maintenance this year, not counting capital improvements or the cost to run Portland Head Light. Still, he says, the foundation strives to do as much as it can, and the clearing of invasives is seen as a primary goal.

“They are taking over much of the park,” said Shaffer during a tour Monday. The alien plants choke out native species, she said, pointing to a young oak smothered in a tangled web of bittersweet. Fauna also suffer. Monarch butterflies, for instance, will confuse black swallowwort for the milkweed plants where they normally lay their eggs.

“The black swallowwart doesn’t have whatever the milkweed has that nourishes the larvae that hatches out of the eggs,” Shaffer said, “and so, they die.”

Another irony, said Shaffer, is that most of the visitors who flock to the Fort Williams each year have no idea that the tangled brush along the Cliffside Path, which seems to add so much to the rustic charm of the site, is actually harmful. And so, public awareness of park needs is perhaps not as wide as it could be. The choice twice made by voters to reject parking fees has put an increasing burden on fundraising, she said.

“One of the things we are increasingly dealing with is revenue generation,” said Bill Nickerson, chairman of the Fort Williams Advisory Commission.

Cape Elizabeth has never tracked traffic through the park, but Nickerson said “the number that’s out there” is roughly 1 million visitors per year. Even a nominal per hour parking fee would have helped, he said.

However, after the no votes, the commission has turned to other sources, most visibly allowing food vendors to cater to park customers for the first time this year. Additional plans include renting out buildings on site – something councilors were set to consider Oct. 12 – as well as creating an area to be rented out for wedding receptions and a second pay-to-picnic site.

The latter options are part of an overall master plan currently in the works, which Nickerson said the commission hopes to present for Town Council approval in January.

The master plan, first drafted in 1990 was last updated in 2003. Many of the goals in that plan have yet to be implemented, Nickerson said, so the commission has not got back to the drawing table completely.

Instead, Portland-based Mitchell and Associates has begun work on a plan that incorporates the earlier goals, which includes removal of foreign plants, as well as areas of concern uncovered in a recent commission survey answered by about 400 people, including 308 Cape residents.

Issues of pedestrian safety and vehicle speed will be answered in a number of ways, including installation of new sidewalks, roundabouts at some interactions, and a redesign of the Ship Cove parking lot.

A recent public hearing on the new master plan drew fewer than a half-dozen residents, only one of whom spoke.

“We’d like to have more input, but we did have the survey, so maybe people felt they had sufficient opportunity to make their feelings known,” said Nickerson. “The fact that only one person spoke is indicative to me that there’s nothing we are considering that is of a controversial nature.”

What may be controversial – what McGovern calls “the meat on the bone” – may come when the town looks for way to maintain its “gift to the state.”

The council appears to be split 4-3 on a proposal to charge admission fees to tour groups. Following an Oct. 12 first reading, that idea will get a public hearing Nov. 14.

The Cliffside section of Fort Williams, shown after the clearing
of invasive plant species. (Courtesy photo)
A section of Fort Williams Park, known as Cliffside, as it
looked before clearing this summer, is seen overrun with sumac,
bittersweet and Japanese knotweed. (Courtesy photo)

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