Boothbay selectmen voted Wednesday night to approve a settlement between the town and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens that will allow a planned expansion of the facility to move forward.

The deal also ends two lawsuits that the gardens filed against the town last year – one in federal court, the other in Lincoln County Superior Court.

Kris Folsom, spokeswoman for the gardens, said Thursday she could not comment on the deal, but said work has been ongoing throughout the winter and a new building is set to be unveiled when the facility reopens April 15.

The 4-1 vote by the town’s Board of Selectmen is the latest in a drawn-out battle over a proposed $30 million expansion of the popular attraction that was first announced in 2016.

Some abutting landowners, led by the Anthony family, balked at the expansion and urged the town to reconsider its permit. Those critics have said the expansion would be environmentally devastating to the watershed of Knickerbocker Lake, a secondary drinking-water source for the town.

Last November, the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals concluded in a 3-2 vote that, for permitting purposes, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is classified as a museum, which is not allowed in the watershed. The building permit was rescinded.

The gardens asked the appeals board to reconsider but it refused, prompting the organization to sue the town, alleging that the appeals board violated the nonprofit organization’s constitutional right to due process.

In a complaint filed Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court in Portland, the gardens said the appeals board process was “tainted” in part because it allowed two members to vote after they held private meetings with abutters opposed to the expansion project. Both voted to rescind the permit.

The lawsuit had been working its way through the court system but will now be dismissed. Court documents indicate that the agreement requires the gardens to place a piece of its property near Knickerbocker Lake into a conservation easement.

The gardens opened in 1997 on the western side of the Boothbay peninsula and its popularity has increased significantly in recent years. A successful late-fall event called Gardens Aglow, during which trees and shrubs are adorned with festive lights, has been a major draw.

The gardens had debated expanding for years and finally announced plans in 2016. The project would include a new parking lot, visitors center and a 22,000-square-foot conservatory that would be the largest in New England.

Some townspeople opposed the project from the beginning.

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

Last summer, while work was being done, the gardens was cited by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for multiple violations, including improperly displacing soil and filling natural wetlands, and for doing work without obtaining proper permits.

The violations were discovered after multiple inspections, and provided fuel for critics. But William Cullina, the gardens’ executive director, called the violations “minor” and said they did not stem from negligence, but extreme weather.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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