Stephen Walker, town councilor and project manager at Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Angela Twitchell, executive director of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, stand with Ginny, Walker’s poodle at the Brunswick Town Commons. The commons celebrates its 300th year this year and is one of the first public conserved lands in Maine. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — The Brunswick Town Commons, one of Maine’s earliest preserved tracts of open space, is celebrating its 300th year at a time when the town is under pressure to develop as continued growth in larger towns like Portland and Lewiston pushes some people and businesses into communities like Brunswick.

Whether it’s a walk on the trails, a bike ride after work or a weekend afternoon kayaking, open space is “that backdrop of our lives,” said Steve Walker, town councilor and project manager for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Open space is just what it sounds like — land that a municipality has consciously decided not to develop. The town defines it as land that provides “scenic beauty and proximity to the natural world,” but “it means different things to different people,” according to Walker. It can also be farmland, space for recreation like trails, access to the waterfronts, large parks or even “pocket parks” like the downtown mall. “Communities that make those intentional decisions, those are the communities people want to live in,” he said.  

Brunswick has been making such a decision for three centuries.

The Brunswick Town Commons, now a 71-acre woodland park and trail system, was once a 1,000-acre gift to the town from the Pejepscot Company in 1719 designed to “ly in general comonage,” according to historical documents.

The property is among the oldest conserved open spaces in Maine. Most of the 1,000 acres have been lost over time in deals that helped bring Bowdoin College and the United States Navy to Brunswick, but according to Fred Koerber, a member of the Town Commons Committee, “it had a significant role in shaping the community and the heritage of protecting open spaces.”

Brunswick and the surrounding areas have conserved spaces at the Commons, Crystal Springs Farm, Maquoit Preserve, Wharton Point, Cox Pinnacle, the Kate Furbish Preserve, Admiral Fitch Preserve,  the Androscoggin River Bicycle Path and Sawyer Park, among others.

Earlier this year, the town agreed to back $150,000 toward the purchase of Woodward Point, a $3.5 million conservation effort by the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

In total, the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust protects and manages 2,700 acres of open space in Brunswick, Topsham and Bowdoin, according to Executive Director Angela Twitchell.

“I’m proud that we are still carrying on that tradition,” she said, noting the importance of balancing open space and land conservation with development.

This need for balance is becoming increasingly prevalent as Brunswick and neighboring towns feel the spillover from larger cities like Portland, Lewiston and Auburn. More people are looking to Brunswick, Bath and Topsham as the cities become more saturated and the pressure to develop existing land only increases.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Brunswick Topsham Land Trust recently acquired Woodward Point, pictured here. The land will provide more access to the water. (Times Record file photo)

“There was a big push for that in the early 2000s,” Walker said. “At the time we knew if we didn’t act proactively” there would not be much land left to conserve. They drafted a Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan in 2002 on the idea that “Brunswick citizens place a high value on the current rural character of our town, which is represented by its open space, parks and recreational features. These limited resources are facing increased pressure from the normal process of growth and development.” The plan was intended to last through 2050 and included a roughly $40 million spending plan over that time, including the establishment of a somewhat “urgent” Land for Brunswick’s Future board which would “preserve key open spaces,” according to the plan.

“The time to acquire land to meet our future needs is now while the opportunity still exists,” it said.

The idea was based on the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program, which is the state’s primary funding vehicle for conserving land for natural and recreational value. The program was established in 1987 when Maine citizens voted to fund $35 million to purchase lands of statewide importance, according to the program website.

“Over the past 30 years, the Land for Maine’s Future Program has assisted in the protection of 54 water access sites, 40 farms totaling more than 9,700 acres, 24 commercial working waterfront properties, more than 1,200 miles of shorelands, 58 miles of former railroad corridors for recreational trails and over 570,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands including 332,000 acres of working lands with permanent conservation easements.”

In Brunswick, though, the plan never really got going, Walker said.

Following the adoption of the plan was the Rural Brunswick Smart Growth Overlay (Zoning Ordinance), the 2004 Bike and Pedestrian Improvement Plan, and the 2008 Comprehensive Plan Update all of which have refined guidance regarding open space priorities and acquisition methods.

In 2004, the town instituted open space impact fees with the thought that any new developments would have to pay per dwelling unit to expand the supply of open space as the town grows to maintain an “ideal” 25 acres of town-owned open space per 1,000 residents. The town will use the revenue generated from the open space impact fee to “acquire and improve conservation land,” according to the ordinance. The impact fees range from $130 for a two bedroom house to $249 for four or more bedrooms. Money for the Land for Brunswick’s Future program was funded in part by the impact fees.

The purchase and sale of land and the construction of large developments slowed down some after the 2008 recession, so not a lot of land has been lost in recent years, Walker said. Of the land designated as priority, about 6% has been lost in the past 10 years. The rates are expected to pick up in the coming years though. 

Now, 20 years since the task force first met to develop the open space plan, “we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg again,” he said. “We need to get serious about it again because the pressure is coming. … If we’re not careful we’re going to lose a lot of land.”

Brunswick officials and community members are expected to update the comprehensive plan by November 2020, and Walker hopes that it will include measures that will help the town get back to its previous position as a leader in open space conservation and to lay out a plan for the land that is not just “ad hoc green space,” he said.

Open space takes land off the tax rolls, which has been an issue that keeps coming up over the years, though Walker thinks it pays for itself by drawing people to town and increasing the quality of life.

“It spurs economic development,” he said.

In 2012, a Trust for Public Land report titled “Return on the Investment In Land for Maine’s Future” found that for every $1 invested in public land, $11 in “natural goods and services” were returned to Maine’s economy.

As free recreation, open space also creates “accessible ways to get outside” that do not require driving an hour, and the opportunity to unplug and get away from screens, Walker said.

A 2017 study by Outdoor Industry reported that outdoor recreation in Maine generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending annually, as well as $548 million in state and local tax revenue.

The field generated more than 76,000 direct jobs, with $2.2 billion in wages and salaries.

“Communities across Maine recognize that outdoor recreation supports health, contributes to a high quality of life and—perhaps most importantly—attracts and sustains employers and families,” the study said. “Investing in outdoor infrastructure attracts employers and active workforces, ensuring those communities thrive economically and socially.”

“As far as drawing businesses (and) employees to a community, having a quality of life to get outside and enjoy the place they are going to call home” is crucial, Twitchell said.

The town commons alone has rare and varied plant and animal life that Walker said needs to be protected now while it is still here, before we have to see what could happen without some of the species that live there. These spaces help with water and air quality, habitat protection and species survival, he said. 

Open space and conserved land in Brunswick also serves to promote a healthy resource-based economy by keeping the waters clean for fisheries and aquaculture, maintaining healthy forests for sustainable forestry and cultivating agricultural soils for farming, Twitchell said.

There is, however, still work to be done.

“We still have very limited access to our waterfront,” Walker said, although the new Woodward Point conservation will help increase that access.

Increased waterfront access is a priority for the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, Twitchell said, partly because “If we don’t have more access to our coasts and rivers then only people wealthy enough to own a house on the coast” will be able to enjoy it.

They also hope to better connect the land that they do have, she said. In the coming years, more trails are expected to open at the 581-acre Kate Furbish Preserve, which the Navy gave over to the town when it left since it could not give back the original portion of the commons.

“We’re lucky that in this area there’s a strong, passionate part of the community dedicated to (land conservation),” Twitchell said. “We have a long history of carrying on that tradition.”

There is a formal ceremony honoring the 300th anniversary of the Town Commons at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

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