Royal River Conservation Trust is on the brink of compromising its impressive history in land acquisition and preservation by partnering with Gray-New Gloucester Little League on a large urban-scale development in New Gloucester’s iconic Intervale landscape.

Through a generous offer by a private landowner, RRCT has an option on a 180-acre tract that connects Royal River wetland habitat with New Gloucester’s scenic and historic lower village. The RRCT plan is to conserve 170 acres for trails in and around the lower village and turn over the remaining 10 acres along Route 231 to Gray-New Gloucester Little League.

The Little League plan is to transform a small existing softball field into a three-field, regional complex. Each field, divided by chain link fencing, will have lights for night play, an amplified PA system, as well as large video (“Scoreboard TV”) screens for playback and advertising. There will be a commercial food business with associated packaging and waste, as well as a hard-scaped parking lot for 60-plus cars and paved walkways among the fields. The lighting will allow nighttime play seven days a week in a season that will extend from early May to late October.

The ballfields will displace wildlife habitat and introduce unprecedented local levels of traffic and noise. Most significantly, the impacts they will have are antithetical to the enjoyment of the very trails RRCT is so eager to establish. The lower village trail system is a great idea but is not at all compatible with the ecological disruptions of a regional baseball complex. Birdwatching and stadium noise do not go hand in hand.

RRCT makes the claim that this project is a gift to the community, promising outdoor recreation opportunities in perpetuity. Actually, the community would be hosting a tax-exempt business that relies in part on attracting people from other areas while adding nothing to the local coffers. New Gloucester taxpayers will be responsible for funding services and infrastructure maintenance. Commercial-scale development of this type is not a form of land conservation, and it makes a mockery of the town’s recently completed comprehensive plan, which emphatically affirms New Gloucester’s rural and peaceful landscape as its most valuable asset.

Little League is a valuable and much-loved institution with much to offer today’s youth. It is also a distinctly commercial enterprise. RRCT is not acknowledging that Little League’s nonprofit status does not always equal non-commercial activity. (The NFL was a nonprofit until 2015!)

Furthermore, once the Intervale land is developed for commercial use, there is no turning back. Should Little League decide at some point down the road to move elsewhere, New Gloucester is stuck with a parking lot and sidewalks suitable to something even less appropriate.

The longer-term value of preserving a treasured rural landscape is immeasurable, both for the town and its property owners and as an enduring source of civic pride.

In partnering with Little League on a commercial development of this scale, RRCT has clearly lost its way and its sense of mission. The organization’s willingness to promote this type of hybrid project is a disturbing form of mission-creep. Is RRCT really willing to destroy nature in order to save it? Has anyone at the “trust” considered what is being promoted in the name of conservation?

How RRCT – or any land trust – could stray so far from its mandate and original intent is beyond comprehension. Ultimately, this breach of duty could cause landowners, financial backers and anyone who takes pride in a local ecosystem to look elsewhere when trying to conserve land in thoughtful and widely beneficial ways.

Eugenia Sawin is a resident of New Gloucester.

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