Bingham trails need Newry's blessing
A recreational trails plan for Bethel’s Bingham land envisions many possibilities:
A hiking trail loop that could encompass three scenic waterfalls on Chapman Brook and its tributaries.
A hiking/mountain biking trail that follows the height of land at the top of the brook’s watershed.
A daytrip in which cross-country skiers or mountain bikers could ride the Sunday River chairlift to the top of the mountain and follow a 15-kilometer trail down the other side through the Bingham land, then be shuttled back to Sunday River.
But for all that and more to happen, Bethel will need help from Newry, where the 2,300-acre Bingham parcel is located.
Bethel and its Conservation Commission have been planning for the protection and use of the former Bethel Water District parcel since acquiring it in a Consent Agreement with the state last year.
At a workshop Monday, Bethel selectmen reviewed a draft Forest Management Plan prepared by consultant Jerry Bley. The plan incorporates a report on recreational trails “opportunities” prepared by John Morton of Morton Trails in Vermont.
But because the “Bingham Forest,” as it is referred to in the management plan, is actually in Newry, the land falls under that town’s ordinance restrictions. The parcel is in the Resource Protection zone, which protects public water supplies by restricting activities.
Although the land is no longer considered a public water supply, it must be maintained as a potential backup to Bethel’s five-year-old well system.
Landon Fake of the BCC told selectmen the Newry ordinance “doesn’t specifically apply to this anymore, because it’s not a public water supply. But we need to maintain it as if it could be. Whether what we want to do can fit within their zoning system, we’re not entirely sure yet.”
The Newry ordinance limits “land-based recreation activities, equipment and maintenance,” which includes trail systems, and requires Planning Board approval for such activities, according to Bley’s plan.
The ordinance also states that “Commercial Recreation,” defined “as any commercial enterprise which receives a fee in return for the provision of some recreational activity including but not limited to: amusement facilities, racquet and tennis clubs, health facility, amusement parks, gymnasiums and swimming pools, shooting ranges, skiing, golf course, and the like,” are prohibited in the zone.
Bley’s plan mentions the possibility of user fees at some point in the future, though he said the ordinance appears to refer to commercial fees on a much larger scale.
Fake said he and Town Manager Jim Doar plan to attend a Newry Planning Board meeting to ask for guidance.
In other discussion on the Management Plan, Bley said Morton’s trails plan calls for a lower, middle and upper recreational trail system. There would be “core” multi-use trails, 14 feet wide, interwoven with a broader network of narrower trails.
The development of any cross-country ski trails should avoid direct competition with other ski centers in the area, he said. There is currently an effort underway to develop a nonprofit cooperative among local cross-country ski areas to share resources, he said, and that could provide a means to incorporate skiing in the Bingham Forest into the community. More skiing options, he said, could help existing businesses by drawing more people.
Securing an access road to the forest could be more complicated than establishing the trail system, Doar said. The Daisy Bryant Road could be an option, but there are questions about a public easement for it. Selectman Don Bennett said the road would also have to be upgraded.
As for financing, sustainable timber harvest revenue (estimated at an average of $15,000 to $20,000 annually) will likely support the payment of taxes and general property expenses, but not recreational development/management.
The plan also discusses the need to find a balance between protecting water quality and wildlife and allowing timber harvesting for revenue.
To fund the trails, Bley said sources of revenue could include grants, user fees, carbon credits and endowments.
Bley’s plan also recommends the Bingham Forest be overseen by a “Bethel Forest Authority,” similar in structure to the Bethel Airport Authority. Members should ideally have expertise in water quality protection, recreation, timber management, wildlife and tourism, he said.
Selectmen recommended that membership be open to Newry residents.
A town meeting would be required to change the Bethel ordinance to accommodate the new entity, Doar said.
He recommended a special town meeting take place in the near future to establish a BFA. Selectmen could then appoint members, he said, “who could meet to determine some of the priorities, to make some recommendations on what to tackle first, and to put together a budget for what it’s going to take, and get going up there.”
Bley’s plan can be found on the Bethel town website at www.bethelmaine.org/Pages/BethelME_BComm/Bingham%20Management%20Plan.
Newry selectmen also met Monday, before the Bethel board did. They were cautious about the question of zoning and other aspects of the Bingham project.
Brooks Morton said Fake had asked him about the possibility of changing Newry’s zoning ordinance, if needed, to accommodate the trails. Morton said he didn’t give Fake a solid answer, noting that he couldn’t speak for the town, which would have to vote on the issue.
Administrator Loretta Powers said there had also been discussion in Bethel about Newry possibly, at some point in the future, donating the tax money Bethel pays to her town on the land (about $5,000 annually) back to the Bingham effort.
Chairman Wendy Hanscom wondered if there was another way around the question, perhaps ultimately making the Bingham land tax exempt.
She said the board would be available if Bethel representatives wanted to talk to them.