FREEPORT — Two state transportation officials apologized Tuesday to dozens of frustrated Freeport residents for not informing them earlier of a controversial tree-cutting project along Interstate 295.

“We’re sorry that this one got out of the gate,” said Dale Doughty, director of maintenance and operations for the Maine Department of Transportation. “We want to own that. In the future we’ll be in contact with the community.”

Nonetheless, Doughty said residents’ protests – about noise, air pollution and the project’s impact on their quality of life – had they been heard earlier, may not have changed the agency’s plan to cut down 37 acres of trees along the highway and convert them into grass-covered embankments by the end of the summer. Now, with the ground already cleared, Doughty said the agency will consider giving the town an unspecified sum of money to construct barriers or plant trees on its side of the chain-link fence that separates town and state-owned property.

“By all honesty, it has not been maintained well,” Doughty said. “Our maintenance priorities and our funding have gone to other places.”

Framing the issue around safety, Doughty, joined by MDOT regional manager John Cannell, answered questions and heard complaints for more than two hours at a Town Council workshop before a crowd of about 60 residents.


Cannell said planning of the clearing project began more than a year ago, after the Department of Transportation decided that a 100-foot buffer was necessary on both sides of the highway to give drivers better sight lines, and to reduce shadows over the road that slow the melting of ice and snow. The clearing, which took place in April, was originally expected to extend to Brunswick, but the state revised the project.

In its final, approved form, the project cost about $205,000, and was performed by Lovell-based Drew Corp.

As part of the bid agreement, Drew Corp. was allowed to keep the timber, most of which was chipped and sold for about $6,000 to fuel a biomass boiler. The remaining saw logs yielded about $1,500, said Rob Drew, owner of Drew Corp.

The state is not yet done with the project. The MDOT is planning to seek bids for another contract to grind the stumps that pock-mark the area, loam the hillsides and plant grass seed.

At times on Tuesday, justification for the project switched between the statistical and the anecdotal.

In the stretch of highway between Exits 20 and 28 where the cutting took place, the state received reports of 186 accidents in the last three years, with a large chunk – 37 percent – attributed to either snow or animals in the roadway, Cannell said.

But he did not offer any other statistics for other areas of the state with comparable traffic, or indicate whether that accident rate was low, high or exceptional in any way.

He did, however, offer an anecdote: In another area of the state – which he did not name but where similar tree clearing had recently been completed – Cannell and other motorists were able to spot a deer before it came close to the roadway, giving him and others time to slow down.

“The reason we set a clear zone at 100 feet on the interstate is to give motorists that reaction time,” Doughty said.


But Freeport residents were skeptical of the statistics and the anecdotes, saying they see few accidents or animals in the area. And they were perplexed as to why their town was chosen as the first to experience a new standard of Maine highway manicuring.

“I don’t understand why Freeport was the place of mass destruction,” said Shari Broder of East Street. “We had a quiet neighborhood, and I can’t even open my windows at night. So let’s cut to the chase. Are you gonna do anything about it?”

Doughty, at one point, downplayed the ability of vegetation to dampen highway noise, saying federal officials have studied the issue with mixed results.

But residents said otherwise.

Babies who used to sleep during the night now wake up, restless. Residents can no longer hear their doorbell over the din of passing cars. High school athletes who play on fields near the highway can no longer hear the referee’s whistle.

But conflicting priorities between the MDOT and residents – however acute in Freeport – are not foreign to the agency, Doughty said.

“All of the resources that we need to pay attention to – many things like wetlands, historic properties – many of those are in conflict, and many are in conflict with safety,” he said.

He said the MDOT frequently has to deal with those “conflicting resources.”