FREEPORT — Plans for an indoor-outdoor soccer arena off Hedgehog Mountain Road are on hold while developers search for property with fewer zoning complications.

At a public forum Tuesday night, town councilors stated they were unaware that the project would require zoning changes, which leaves $10,000 of public money on the line.

On Tuesday night, Freeport officials and approximately 80 residents gathered at the Freeport Community Center for a public forum moderated by a professional facilitator to discuss the controversial project that prompted a citizens petition started by “Save Our Neighborhood,” a group of residents opposed to the project.

Town Council chairman Jim Cassida said during Tuesday’s forum that a council workshop with the Topsham based Seacoast United Soccer Club scheduled for Jan. 17 has been delayed at the organization’s request.

Mike Healy, spokesman for the Topsham-based Seacoast United Soccer Club, said Tuesday night that the club is “ investigating alternative sites in and outside of Freeport,” and that if the club does not identify a location with fewer zoning challenges, Seacoast will continue work on the project at the Hedgehog Mountain Road site.

Cassida said that the club is in discussions with private property owners in Freeport and that he could not disclose which sites in town Seacoast is investigating for the nearly 12.5-acre project.

The planned project at the Hedgehog Mountain site includes two outdoor soccer fields — one that includes property to be leased from the town — and another 62,000-squarefoot indoor soccer arena.

Tensions were high at Tuesday night’s meeting, where members of the neighborhood coalition addressed the council.

Tom Ross, the first member of the public to speak Tuesday, opened by asking the council for more details about how the zoning change requirement slipped by when town officials worked out the contract with Seacoast.

Healy, representing Seacoast, said he was first made aware that zoning changes would be required for the project in early meetings of the municipal facilities committee in the fall of 2009.

“The town planner said there were some zoning issues possibly involved and I saw that the zoning ordinance raised some issues,” Healy said. “You could do outdoor recreation in the (rural residential) zone for profit but there was no provision for indoor recreation.”

Ross said that he asked Cassida if zoning changes would be required for the project in an email and heard that there were no required changes known.

“He’s correct that he asked if we needed any zoning changes for the project and I wasn’t aware that a zoning change was necessary,” Cassida said.

Ross asked the council: “If it was known to (Healy) as the developer, why wasn’t it known to the public at the time it was voted on in April?”

Council vice chairwoman Sara Gideon said Tuesday night that, at the time of signing the contract with Seacoast, she was unaware of the zoning changes that would be required to put the commercial indoor project on the property zoned as rural residential.

“I will stand in front of you all and say that I was not specifically aware for the zoning change that needed to be made when I approved this contract,” Gideon said.

At a November meeting, the Freeport Planning Board voted 4- 3 against changing zoning in the district to accommodate the project for which the council signed a purchase-and-sale agreement in April 2011.

In that contract, the town agreed to pay half of the $30,000 price tag to the firm Milone & MacBroom of Freeport. Of that $15,000 from the town, $ 10,000 would be reimbursed, but only after the appropriate development permits are received.

Any zoning change would now need to go before the council, which would have to contradict the Planning Board recommendation against the zoning change before the project could move forward.

Guy Quattrucci, a representative of the neighborhood group, said he was surprised that the zoning issue had not been addressed before councilors approved the purchaseand sale agreement with Seacoast.

“That concerns me that this would have happened at all without the zoning issue being vetted — that’s really basic stuff,” Quattrucci said.

Quattrucci also raised concerns that changing the zoning regulations would violate the town’s comprehensive plan, which indicates an intention to keep commercial growth in districts already approved for that use.

The town’s attorney has reviewed the zoning issue as a possible overlay zone, or spot zoning, which Town Planner Donna Larson said isn’t necessarily illegal.

“Spot zoning can be illegal,” Larson said. “The town attorney has said that wouldn’t constitute spot zoning that would be illegal.”

District 3 Councilor Kristina Egan, who was not on the council when it voted on the Seacoast contract, suggested that the town focus on whether the project would benefit Freeport overall and what the harm to the neighbors would be from the project. However, no clear consensus on those impacts emerged during the two-hour meeting.

As Healy addressed the audience during the last minutes of the presentation, tensions flared briefly as members of the neighborhood coalition interrupted, prompting facilitator Lesa Andreason to step in.

“This is why we have a facilitator,” Andreason said. “These are people that you’re going to be seeing on the sidewalk in town — don’t do this to each other.”

Cassida said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting that the council is working on efforts to promote better communication with townspeople.

[email protected] / @darrenfishell

Read the full purchase and sale agreement for the Seacoast deal here:

 



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