Logan Snyder rides his bike at the former tannery property in Camden. As proposals for the property have come and gone, the site has seen regular use as a park. (Photo: Ethan Andrews)
Logan Snyder rides his bike at the former tannery property in Camden. As proposals for the property have come and gone, the site has seen regular use as a park. (Photo: Ethan Andrews)
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“It’s about striking that balance to find out how we can meet more needs versus just one need in the parcel,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t sit vacant for another 15 years.”

— Thomaston’s Economic Development Specialist Brian Doyle, speaking to the Courier-Gazette after he was hired in January 2021

Call to mind a bedeviled town-owned property where proposals come and go and nothing ever happens, where competing local interests and the overtures of outside investors, by turns ambitious and risk-averse, hold the land in suspense for decades.

In a recent call with Thomaston Selectwoman Zel Bowman-Laberge, I brought up the idea in relation to Thomaston Green, the former Maine State Prison site. The property has been the subject of numerous proposals since the prison closed two decades ago and unquestionably fit the definition of a challenging town property. Bowman-Laberge immediately offered another one. “I would also guess the Apollo Tannery property might fall into this.”

Dozens of midcoast properties come into public ownership each year through tax foreclosures, and mostly the municipalities sell them as quickly as possible to the highest bidder. But some, like Thomaston Green and the former tannery in Camden, or the old railroad property in Belfast known today as Belfast Yards, come with a combination of headaches and opportunities that keep them in the public trust for years.

In the best-case scenario, they become bargaining chips for jobs, amenities or services the town lacks, fixing a hole in the patchwork of whims and priorities of past generations. But along the way, they might be frozen by environmental problems and the sunk costs that come with addressing them, scuttled sales, the slow pace of government, and attempts to shoehorn all the hopes and dreams of residents into one project that risks satisfying no one.

The same could be said of schools offloaded on towns during consolidations, unused courts, jails and other specialty government buildings, and Thomaston got a little of both when Maine State Prison was moved from its longtime location a half-mile west of the town center to a new complex in Warren.

A market study at the time considered reusing the prison buildings but determined that poking windows for offices through the thick walls of the cell blocks and various other measures of “de-industrialization” were impractical, and the already low cost of local housing didn’t bode well for generating rent to pay off the renovations. Ironically, this may have had to do with the prison itself. Thomaston Historical Society, in an online history, describes how the prison at one end of town and cement factory at the other had long kept housing prices depressed. “With the prison gone, the price of real estate in town has increased considerably.”

There was also the matter of the marble quarry that stood in the center of the prison yard. When an earlier iteration of the prison burned in 1923, the debris was pushed into the quarry and leveled off into an area that served as a sunken ballfield. In 2002, the mass of buildings and the giant hole in the ground again proved complementary — 170,000 square feet of penitentiary was rendered into 80,000 square feet of rubble, pushed into the open quarry and covered with soil. While expedient, this left a large area at the center of the property, today in the vicinity of the gazebo, that remains too unstable to support new buildings.

The property had other complications. The six or seven acres farthest from Route 1 slope steeply down to the St. George River, where the Maine Central Railroad line cuts off access to the water. The highlands of the green, overlooking the river valley, are notched with drainage ditches to stop erosion, further nibbling away at the buildable footprint. As the lot has evolved into an informal park, a lack of parking, electricity and public restrooms has made it difficult to host large events.

Early redevelopment plans kept portions of the prison complex to be used for municipal offices and some combination of a library, police station, rec center and museum. The back lot was proposed for a separate retirement community, a community center, various housing, offices, ball fields and an amphitheater. There was talk of retail outlets, in the style of Freeport and Kittery, or trying to sell the entire prison complex to a movie production studio — as a readymade set for prison films.

The town took possession of the property in 2004, in a sale that swapped the land for fees the state would have paid over the next two years to the wastewater treatment plant, which had been built at a scale to serve the prison. When residents approved the sale at town meeting, they added a clause so that any proposed development of the land would have to come back for another town vote.

Camden voters took the same authority for themselves in 2017, reversing an earlier vote and assuring that they would have the final say in the sale of the tannery property.

“All of the authority to do anything with the site in terms of selling or redeveloping it has to go to the legislative body, which is town meeting,” Town Manager Audra Caler said. “And that’s a really rigid process. Sometimes you need some level of flexibility to make some sort of project work, or happen, on a site like that. And when you have a really rigid process and a need for flexibility, those two things come at odds.”

Caler, who was previously city manager of Rockland, noted that, in contrast to a town select board, a city council has legislative authority. This means it can move fast, she said, but political pressure from constituents can still slow the process down.

This time for Camden’s Tannery Park?

Apollo Tanning Ltd. closed its Washington Street operation after a fire in 1999. The occurance was described in news reports from the time as “suspicious,” and the company’s insurance refused to cover the damages. For several years the property was a private debacle. Apollo slipped out of a mortgage default via bankruptcy, leaving a site that the state Department of Environmental Protection had already identified as contaminated. After several failed sales, the town acquired it by tax foreclosure in 2003 along with a lot of problems. The property wasn’t zoned for housing, and underground spills of a leather degreasing chemical used at the tannery and other toxic Easter eggs that may have dated to a previous woolen mill made the site unfit for anything but more industry. Until recently, a neighbor told me, the property smelled like leather. The building that had once housed the tannery was demolished in 2005, and the town set about looking for a single buyer to put the property back on the books. A movie production company, ambulance service and other less eye-catching proposals came and went.

In the next two decades, the town would put close to $1 million of tax money and $400,000 in federal grants toward the cleanup. Caler said the town is still paying, and despite some interest in making the site into a park, the debt has steered the conversation about the property toward options that would generate revenue.

“It’s been very split within the town,” she said. Straw polls on whether the former tannery property should be put back into commercial use or remain open space split 51% to 49% with the edge to commercial use, but barely. “Group after group has tried to come up with some broad consensus on what the community would like to see happen on that site, but no actual proposal has ever been put in front of voters. And the longer this process drags on, and the more people see it, the less interested any[one] from the private sector is in partnering with the town to do anything.”

Last September, the town put out a request for proposals, and in March of this year the Select Board picked a multi-use plan from Mike Mullins and Cranesport LLC from four submissions, including a bid by Habitat for Humanity to use a portion of the property, a proposal for a large apartment building and a plan pitched by community members to make the site a park — in a clever piece of advocacy, the land was officially named Tannery Park in 2017, fixing the idea of parkland to the industrial brownfield.

Mullins’ plan included workshops for entrepreneurs and a barn intended as a centerpiece for a community hub and a year-round home for the farmers’ market, which has leased the property in recent years. Speaking last week, he said the idea grew out of a proposal he made in 2017 to convert the former Mary E. Taylor elementary school to maker spaces. Many of the aspects of his plan aligned with reports of the town’s tannery working groups in 2008 and 2017, right down to a town square–type space designed to be flooded for a skating rink in winter. In short, it was exactly what the town said it wanted. But during discussions of the proposals, town officials decided that in addition to what the working groups said they wanted — “creative economy, flexible structures, a unique site that is aesthetically consistent with the neighborhood” — they also wanted housing.

Mullins spoke informally with town officials and offered to replace four “flexible workshops” planned for the north end of the property with 10 to 12 single-family homes. The board had hoped to bring the proposal to voters at the annual town meeting in June, but the addition of housing required a zoning change and amendments to the purchase-and-sale agreement that couldn’t be done in time. Additionally, two seats on the Select Board are up for election in June, and the incumbents are not seeking re-election, which Caler said is likely to extend the time it would take to finalize a deal.

“Even though there’ll be three people on the board who are familiar with it,” she said, “you know, everything changes when you have new people.”

Mullins said his timeline for the project was conservative, showing the development being built by August of 2022. “So that could still be done,” he said. “… The biggest impact for my side is that if you have too much housing, parking becomes a constraint. And that limits the number of workshops you can build.”

Further along in Belfast

The acre or so of open land on Front Street in Belfast, known as Belfast Yards, was originally closer to three acres, including some pieces aggregated in a series of land deals when Front Street Shipyard arrived in 2012. Later, the city sold two parcels to the shipyard where the largest of its buildings now stand. The second of these sales involved a parking lot once built for the railroad. The shipyard paid more than $600,000. Wayne Marshall, who was the city planner at the time (he stepped aside in September but continues to work with the city on documentation related to a lawsuit concerning Nordic Aquafarms), saw it as a win for the city, which would benefit not only from the sale but future tax revenue and jobs at the growing shipyard.

“To me, it’s a 25-year evolutionary story of success,” he said.

The remaining piece is a little more than an acre, and the city is looking closely at what to do with it.

“The city doesn’t own much land,” Marshall said. “Take away the parks, that aren’t going to become anything other than parks, and we don’t own much. Really, one of the last usable parcels that the city has is that one acre along the waterfront, Belfast Yards.”

A former railroad building leased by the city to the Belfast Maskers theater group was condemned and demolished in 2015. The city received a federal brownfields grants and a state economic development loan for assessment and cleanup. A layer of oil-contaminated soil was removed and replaced. Since then, debate over what to do with it has mostly been within the City Council, which has final authority over any sale or lease. Unlike Thomaston Green or Tannery Park, the dirt slab of Belfast Yards, bounded on two sides by Front Street Shipyard, with a view across the street of the city’s wastewater treatment plant is unlikely to be mistaken for a park. The principal competing use has been temporary storage of construction vehicles and dock floats. Discussion of the property has been sidelined for several years as the City Council has navigated other major projects, including the Nordic Aquafarms proposal.

Despite the windfall from the two parcels sold to the shipyard, it’s unlikely that more of the property will be ceded to the business.

In a video filmed for the city’s government access channel, City Councilor Mike Hurley cautioned against allowing the waterfront to be monopolized, noting that most of the west shore of the harbor is owned by two entities, the city and Front Street Shipyard. Belfast Yards is not directly on the waterfront but has access via Thompson’s Wharf. Hurley presented a vision of attached storefronts, similar to those on nearby Main Street.

However, the shipyard has rented parts of the property on a short-term basis, while it is in limbo. The council recently agreed to rent Belfast Yards to Lincolnville-based Clark and Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding for nine months, starting in September, to restore New Jersey’s official tall ship, the 115-foot wooden schooner AJ Meerwald.

To date, discussion of the future of Belfast Yards has mostly been confined to City Hall. The council has final authority over any sale or lease and past conversations suggest that they are treating it as something valuable.

Open space

Thomaston appeared to be on its way to approving the development of Thomaston Green in September, when a pair of small housing developments appeared on the warrant of the annual town meeting. Both plans were consistent with the 2008 Thomaston Green Master Plan, and together they would have occupied only a small corner of the expansive lot, but voters rejected them.

“I think people thought it was happening too fast,” Bowman-Laberge said. Of course, there was nothing fast about the last 20 years of Thomaston Green, but not everyone had been around for the whole process.

“A lot of newer people to the town really felt like they weren’t as involved in the discussion,” she said. “And I think that’s a very common kind of response.”

At public meetings in Thomaston, park supporters faced off against old hands who had been involved in task forces over the years, when the goal was always to develop the property. “They’re like, haven’t we already talked about this?” Bowman-Laberge said. “And then you would get the people that said, I wasn’t living in Thomaston at the time; I don’t have the backstory, but I very strongly feel like we should leave it open space.”

The Courier-Gazette published a scolding editorial after the vote, noting the long history of planning and infrastructure work that had been done in anticipation of developing the property: “Parks are nice, but this is Maine, and we do not lack scenic places to walk and enjoy the outdoors. Many are in places where you will not have to hear semis roaring past along Route 1.”

Others welcomed the new view of the property. Kevin Bunker, a principal in Developers Collaborative, who proposed a “village-style development” for Thomaston Green before the 2008 recession, told MaineBiz that he and his partner Richard Berman now “think that it makes a great park — and probably ought to stay one.”

At a workshop in October, the Courier Gazette reported, residents spoke of keeping the Green open for events, weddings, farmers markets and the like. One of the speakers, Anson Norton, suggested several temporary uses, including weddings and the annual Independence Day celebration.

“If we put something there, we will regret it in 10 years,” he said.