A water access point at Porters Landing in Freeport. Courtesy of Daniel Piltch.

Freeport will soon begin to develop strategies aimed at addressing the local impacts of rising sea levels and flooding set forth by climate change.

Freeport is one of 10 coastal Maine communities taking part in a $500,000 initiative by the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG). The funds – half of which will be sourced from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and half from various other donations and grants – will be used to develop nature-based solutions to build coastal resilience, a method that can be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than hard infrastructure.

According to Sara Mills-Knapp, the council’s sustainability program manager, the project will run for two years and work to conduct a community-specific planning and vulnerability assessment.

“Communities are really the ones that … know the risks that they face and the impacts that they’re going to see from climate change, because they’re really living it,” said Mills-Knapp. “I think it’s important in that we’re really excited to bring this federal funding to the region, but implement it really on a local level.”

There are about 37 miles of tidal coastline in Freeport, made up of rocky shoreline, clam flats and estuarine ecosystems, according to the town’s website. The mouth of the Harraseeket River serves as the town’s primary harbor.

Maine has 3,478 miles of tidal coastline, the ninth most in the United States. The Maine Climate Council, a state-run organization, indicates that the degree of sea level rise will largely depend on the world’s success at shrinking greenhouse gas emissions.

The organization predicts that a worst-case scenario would translate to a 3-foot sea level increase by 2050, and an 8.8-foot increase by 2100. An 8.8-foot rise would translate to the loss of 98% of the state’s dry beaches and $1.7 billion in annual tourist spending.

Valy Steverlynck, the chairperson of Freeport’s Sustainability Advisory Board, said that local climate initiatives by the town so far include solar energy agreements for municipal and school buildings, implementing LED street lights, educational lecture series, promoting hybrid and electric vehicles and waste management efforts such as composting. Up until now, Steverlynck said, the town has not launched any major work to address flooding or shoreline restoration.

Erosion caused by a storm at Winslow Park in Freeport. Courtesy of Valy Steverlynck.

“In Freeport, especially the eastern facing shoreline, we do have a lot of shoreline that is very vulnerable because it’s basically facing the open water and sometimes at a quite steep angle,” said Steverlynck. “We have noticed that over the years a lot of individuals — private owners — have had to build bulkheads, with rocks and with other material to prevent their land from getting washed away.”

Steverlynck said that while these bulkhead barriers provide an immediate solution, implementing nature-based flood prevention mechanisms are the preferred method because they maintain fishery habitat and biodiversity.

“My husband and I run an oyster farm, that’s what we do for a living, so we’re very familiar with the coastline and the impact of climate change,” said Steverlynck. “I can’t say that we’re heading in the right direction, if anything we’re definitely going to start seeing more costly repercussions to our not paying attention to climate change and addressing it in a timely fashion.”

The other municipalities involved in the project include Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Portland, South Portland, Chebeague Island and Long Island.

“There are a number of vulnerable areas in the town,” said Mason Morfit, a member of Freeport Climate Action Now, which formed over the summer to advocate for local solutions to environmental issues sparked by climate change. “For example, Winslow Park which is a major attraction in town, is a low-lying area particular at the entrance and that could sort of just flood out with the boat ramp and the parking lot.”

The group plans to hold a town climate forum Jan. 20, 2022 at the Freeport Community Center.

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