FREEPORT — New cost estimates from engineers put the environmental permitting process for the Hunter and Pownal roads fields as high as $120,000.

Facing a dilemma to pay for improvements or divest the property to avoid paying, the Town Council pushed back the decision Tuesday night to solicit more public comment.

At a minimum, the town would have to pay $59,000 to make the necessary storm-water improvements for the Department of Environmental Protection permit, Town Engineer Al Pregraves told the council.

But to make property improvements, including a larger parking area and other future developments, the town could end up paying $120,000.

Initial costs for the permitting went from about $40,000 to nearly $300,000 late last year. The new cost estimates reflect alternatives for storm water improvements that came out of discussions between town engineers and DEP.

The town could avoid paying for any environmental permitting or improvements if it transferred ownership of the seven-acre Pownal Road field to Regional School Unit 5. That would split up the five-piece, 60-acre parcel; it would no longer be considered a “common scheme of development,” removing the permit requirement.

In July last year, the council voted 6-1 against transferring ownership to RSU 5.

Many councilors were concerned about the cost, considering other large, looming projects, such as the proposed $17 million expansion of Freeport High School, which goes to voters in June, and significant investments for railroad quiet zones.

Although DEP wants the town to make a decision soon about the property and could eventually take enforcement action, Presgraves said the state will likely be lenient if the town continues to show progress.

The permitting process for the fields was prompted after the council blocked zoning changes early last year that would have allowed a plan by the Topsham-based youth soccer club Seacoast United to develop 12 acres of the fields for an indoor and outdoor sports complex.

The proposed project, and minor development of the land by the town afterward, triggered a state environmental review for a site permit.

The town-owned land, adjacent to the Hedgehog Mountain recreation area and the town transfer station, is made up of two sections developed for athletic and recreational use, with an undeveloped center section.

The council sought an extension for the permit at a July meeting last year and had hoped to become a state-sanctioned environmental protection delegate. This move would have given the town permit-granting authority and the ability to conduct environmental reviews, which would dramatically reduce costs.

But the deadline to become a delegate for the project had already passed.

The council will discuss the fields and the permit at a workshop Feb. 12 and is expected to take action at its next regular meeting Feb. 26.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

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