Mela Heetstand, co-owner of the Desert of Maine in Freeport, seeks a zoning amendment that would allow expanded uses on the parcel, such as an arts and community center with a food truck and larger musical performances. File

FREEPORT — The owners of the Desert of Maine, a Midcoast landmark since the early 20th century, want to make improvements to ensure its survival throughout the 21st century.

To move forward with plans to expand, Mela and Doug Heestand, are asking the town to create a Desert of Maine District at their 95 Desert Road property, which is located within a rural residential zone. A commercial entity since 1925, the Desert was allowed to continue as such after Freeport adopted zoning in the 1970s.

“We really want to … invest over $1 million in the property, but we can’t really do that unless we have a viable business model, which we can’t do unless we get the zoning changes,” Mela Heestand said.

“It’s a grandfathered use, but the business model itself is now pretty antiquated for the year 2020,” Heestand said, pointing out that the operation isn’t allowed to sell tickets to a performance in its 1827 Tuttle Barn, or run a cafe in the visitors center, for example.

The Desert consists of a 20-30-acre “desert” of silt – not sand – that in the 18th century functioned as a successful farm. During the coronavirus pandemic, it is open for self-guided tours only along the dunes and surrounding trails; the campground and playground are closed.

“Our overall vision is to create an arts and community center, and that business model is not really possible with our current zoning,” Heestand said.

With the overlay, the Desert’s new allowed uses would include an indoor art center, indoor public assembly space, art gallery and museum, food truck, local retail trading, food trucks and a village cafe, according to Jim Katsiaficas, an attorney who represented the Heestands at a June Planning Board workshop. A-frame cabins would be built to allow for more modernized camping.

An approximately 200-seat venue would be created for classic and folk musical performances, Katsiaficas said: “Mostly acoustic-type music; we’re not talking about a major rock and roll arena, or anything of that sort here. We’re talking about something that’s much more in keeping with the area.”

The Heestands’ request goes before the Planning Board for further discussion Wednesday, Aug. 5. A public hearing would be held at a later date, at which point the panel could make a recommendation to the Town Council.

If approved, the underlying zoning district would remain residential, according to Town Planner Caroline Pelletier.

“The overlay district would be an additional layer to what is already there,” she explained. “As proposed, the area within the proposed overlay district would have additional uses allowed.”

The Desert can now have small “couch concerts,” for which tickets aren’t sold and donations for musicians are requested, Heestand said.

Overlay districts can be “a touchy subject” in Freeport, Planning Board Chairman Sam Kapala said. “That said, I do feel like … this use of an overlay district is a lot tidier and more appropriate,” he added.

Pondering whether there are other places in Freeport rural residential zones in a similar condition as the Desert of Maine, which, too, could seek an overlay district, Kapala said, “I think this really is a unique situation in Freeport, to have something with this history. I, for one, would like to promote … the development of a future for that parcel, beyond just being a desert.”

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