The Freeport Conservation Commission dealt a blow to a proposed bike trail system on Hedgehog Mountain Tuesday evening when the group doubled down on its previous recommendation to the Town Council: No bikes on the mountain’s summit.
“We all grew up with the idea that economic growth was the best thing since sliced bread,” said resident Kathleen Sullivan, one of more than 40 people who attended the Conservation Commission meeting to lobby for the continued prohibition on bikes. “But there gets to be a time when we say, ‘What a minute — what’s the price?’”
The Freeport Chamber of Commerce and the New England Mountain Biking Association have been working for more than two years to make Hedgehog Mountain a premier destination for Maine’s growing number of off-road cyclists. Proponents say the proposed 6.3 miles of beginner, intermediate and advanced trails would aid local businesses by drawing a steady stream of visitors to Freeport, especially during the otherwise quiet winter months. The groups behind the project have already successfully raised more than $150,000 from businesses and individuals, according to Tawni Whitney, the chamber’s executive director.
After the Conservation Commission released a proposed Hedgehog Mountain Management Plan revision last December that would continue the current policy of outlawing bikes on the mountain’s summit in order to limit erosion, the Town Council asked the group to meet with pro-trail advocates to search for a compromise that could allow the project to go forward while protecting Hedgehog’s ecosystems.
Councilor Jake Daniele, who helped facilitate the conversations between the groups over the last month, said meetings have been “open and positive.”
But on Tuesday, the commission heeded the cry from dozens of meeting attendees: Don’t back down.
“I ask you, please, stick to your guns,” said resident Jack Montgomery, who warned a similar trail system at Falmouth’s Blackstrap Hill Preserve had resulted in damaging erosion. “The decision you make tonight is going to impact Hedgehog Mountain far beyond the life of any person in this room.”
Some speakers, including Freeport Wild Bird Supply owner Derek Lovitch, cited the environmental risks of building trail systems. Lovitch said the current health of Hedgehog’s woods makes it a haven for threatened birds like the wood thrush and warned disrupting the ecosystem could result in species loss and the introduction of invasive plants.
Others feared a new trail system would crowd out walkers and disrupt a spot that has remained a peaceful sanctuary for generations.
Stuart Johnson of Maine Trail Builders, which would lead the six-month trail construction, was the lone voice in support of the project Tuesday. He addressed several resident concerns, promising that the group’s machine-built trails would be thoughtfully designed to limit erosion and tree removal and that trails leading up the mountain would be well-suited to walkers.
Fifteen residents spoke in favor of the commission’s proposed management plan, with several comments winning applause from the audience. The overwhelming opposition to the trail system marked a departure from previous Town Council meetings, which drew supporters of both factions.
“I’m not surprised that people are passionate about such a beautiful place,” Daniele wrote in an email after the meeting. “I’m glad that all voices came forward and that everyone had an opportunity to speak.”
After the public had their say, the commission drew cheers by quickly voting to bring their unamended Management Plan back to the Town Council next Tuesday, which could force Freeport leaders to choose between the community’s economic and environmental interests.
While some members of the commission said they hoped mountain biking groups would pursue projects in other parts of town, others said they were frustrated with the Town Council for pushing them to rubber stamp an economic development plan that clashed with their environmental findings.
“I find it ridiculous that we keep talking about the same thing,” commission member Anna Cudmore said. “If you agree with us… you should all be at the city meeting (next Tuesday), because it’s a lonely road for us.”
Freeport’s Town Council will discuss the commission’s Hedgehog Management Plan vision at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28.