Mela Heetstand, co-owner of the Desert of Maine in Freeport, seeks a zoning amendment that would allow expanded uses on the parcel. File photo

FREEPORT — The owners of Freeport’s Desert of Maine are looking to transform the dunes from what one neighbor called a “rundown campground and low-end tourist attraction” to a vibrant ecological, educational and cultural destination.

Doug and Mela Heestand, who purchased the property in late 2018, are in the midst of a multi-year, nearly $2.5 million Desert of Maine revamp and are seeking a town zoning change in the formation of a “Nature-Based and Art Overlay” district to help further their efforts. 

The Desert of Maine, which receives too much rainfall to be classified as a real desert, consists of a 20-30-acre “desert” of silt – not sand– that functioned as a successful farm until overgrazing sheep caused widespread erosion, exposing the silt beneath the topsoil. 

It became a tourist attraction nearly 100 years ago in 1925. The Desert was allowed to continue as such after Freeport adopted zoning in the 1970s, despite its location in a rural residential zone. In order the give the desert the facelift that they want to, the Heestands need the town to approve the zoning changes. 

The change was approved by the planning board last week and still needs approval from the town council and project review board.

While it was a “charming and really beloved destination” for many years, Mela Heestand told the planning board, the Desert they purchased was “not a place we would recommend to friends and family.” 


But with work, Doug Heestand said, they have the chance to “make the Desert of Maine an asset for Freeport. We want it to be a place that Freeport residents wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to friends and family.” 

One of their first goals is the restoration of the historic Tuttle barn. 

According to Mela Heestand, when they took over, the barn was “filled with literal trash.” They removed the trash and plan to fill the 193-year-old barn with music instead, she said. 

Aya Suzuki, left, and Isabel Cumming, both 8, study a stink bug through a magnifying glass during a lesson on biodiversity in a new homeschool program at The Desert of Maine. The program is one of many educational opportunities the attraction hopes to offer in its newest phase of life. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

The long-range vision for the property includes the refurbished barn as an event and performance venue, self-guided and guided tours (with sculptures placed throughout the dunes), ecology, geology and history-focused educational programming, collaborative programs with local arts and nature organizations, family-friendly activities and a modernized campground with eco-friendly A-frame cabins for campers in place of the RV sites of old. 

Nearly $400,000 worth of work has already been completed, according to a report on the organization’s website

Last year, they built a natural-materials playground, gutted and refurbished the bathhouse, built a cafe in the visitors center and converted the space above into an art gallery.


They also reduced the number of campsites by nearly half to give campers more space, and cleaned up trash and fallen trees in the process. 

The Heestands are working with Central Maine Power to bury the electric wires attached to the trees. 

Pending the necessary zoning changes, according to the report, the remaining $2 million in improvements will include a complete renovation of the parking lot, trail and bridge work, the installation of solar panels, and a glass wall around the partially excavated buried spring house which would allow visitors to see the layers of the dunes. 

Plans for parking lot renovations are slated to go before the project review board next week. 

As the COVID pandemic continues, the desert offers a safe outdoor alternative for families to enjoy, Doug Heestand said, and also serves to further diversify Freeport’s economy as the town works to move away from its longstanding retail-driven identity. 

Keith McBride, director of the Freeport Economic Development Corporation, agreed and said the organization sees a “real public benefit to returning the desert to its former glory or exceeding its former glory.” 


“It truly can become one of the crown jewels of Freeport,” he said. 

Resident John Manganello called the Heestands and their plans “a gift to Freeport.” 

“This is as close as the town of Freeport can get to a no brainer,” he said, adding that the alternative would have been “a failing tourist attraction being sold to a home developer.” 

“I’ve watched as they’ve transformed a rundown campground and low-end tourist attraction into an innovative, education-focused and kid-friendly resource for the neighborhood and the larger community,” neighbor Dave Cluchey said. “I’d be delighted to have a center for education and the arts as my neighbor.” 

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