Camden to request proposals for use of tannery property

Can transformation of the tannery property on Washington Street move forward after a 20-year history of chemical pollution, environmental cleanups, failed attempts to sell the property and competing visions for its use.

CAMDEN — The town of Camden will issue a request for proposals for buying or leasing all, or a part, of the town-owned property, named Tannery Park.

The Select Board voted unanimously to encourage proposals to be submitted by entities and individuals, at their June 16 meeting via Zoom video conferencing. Board member Jenna Lookner was not present at the meeting.

Draft request for proposals

The Board authorized Planning and Development Director Jeremy Martin to revise the draft Request for Proposal based on their comments and letters received from members of the public. Once revised, the request will be released, with a deadline of 60 days for responses to be delivered.

The current draft is geared towards a developer buying or leasing the property, and providing benefits for Camden’s economy from revenues generated through the sale, lease and tax revenue and expansion of quality job opportunities. Another preference currently listed is for affordably-priced housing that maximizes the number of units per acre, green building practices and use of solar energy.

The majority of letters from the public ask for changes to the draft RFP, which gives preference, in its evaluation criteria, to proposals that provide economic benefits to the town. The letters call for evaluation criteria that prioritizes a home for the Camden Farmers’ Market and a park.

Public comment

Eleven members of the public sent letters commenting on the draft request for proposals, in place of direct participation in the meeting. Board Chairman Bob Falciani read some of the letters in full, paraphrased others, and said the letters are included in the meeting packet posted on the town of Camden website, and are part of the record.

The Select Board meets via Zoom video conferencing. To date, town officials have invited individuals presenting information on agenda items to the meetings, but have not invited members of the public who wish to comment on agenda items during the meetings.

Two letters from members of the public support going forward with request for proposals drafted by Martin.

Several letters ask for changes to the request for proposals. These changes include: adding as the first point under evaluation criteria the emphasis on preserving open space for public use including the farmers’ market; including a 60-day deadline for receiving responses to give the town time to discuss proposals and obtain public comment before sending a proposal to public vote; and preservation from encroachment or harm of the Riverwalk and the trees lining Washington Street.

Other letters object to: the lack of public notice for the June 16 discussion of the request for proposals; the timing of issuing an RFP during the COVID-19 pandemic, conducting a meeting about the RFP that is not open to the public; and excluding a requirement that a developer commit to providing a home for the farmers’ market.

One letter asks the Board not to issue the RFP as drafted, which seeks a” developer to decide the future of Tannery Park.,” but for the town to retain ownership of the property, and put into place the multi-use plan developed over two years of monthly meetings, and three community forums, for the park, market and possible commercial space.

Board vote, discussion

Board members voted to accept the following, as stated by Vice Chairwoman Alison McKellar: the town will “accept proposals on a rolling basis with the understanding that they are to be made public, and that entities can modify their proposals or submit multiple proposals throughout the process as community input comes in.” Proposals will be made public once accepted, and the town “reserves the right to modify” the request for proposals “at a future time.”

McKellar said she hopes this will foster an environment that takes advantage of public input, and that those who submit proposals will welcome public feedback.

Marc Ratner, who has served on the Select Board since June 2016, said he attended the Tannery Work Group meetings four years ago, and noted that a lot of other people did as well. He emphasized the importance of that group’s recommendations for three shared uses for the property, a building or working space, park area and home for the Camden Farmers’ Market. He said the request for proposals needs to include the statement that any proposal must be approved by voters.

He said he would like to see some guarantees for the Farmers’ market and park area as well as space for a developer, and expressed concern about that the RFP downplays community preference for the market and park.

“There is no public park in Camden when schools are in session for preschool children, and this is an important use for Tannery Park,” he said, and the Farmers’ Market has found their business is much stronger at this location than two previous locations in Camden. “This is one of the oldest markets in the state. It’s very important thing for us, for a town to have.”

Board member Taylor Benzi said he supports a process that includes due diligence and exploring all the options, and a request for proposals would do both. He supports hearing from “a brave developer with a good idea out there,” but would not be opposed “to seeing Tannery Park as 100% green space.” He emphasized that “nothing moves forward without the vote of the citizens.”

During discussion, members agreed to McKellar’s suggestion that the request for proposals drop the use of the word developer, but not with her idea of a rolling, six-month deadline for proposals.

Falciani said he supported a 60-day deadline. Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said the Board could vote to extend the deadline at a later time.

McKellar was adamant that those preparing proposals should not be able to meet with the Select Board in closed-door meetings prior to submitting a proposal, while Falciani said it is common for proposers to request this. Board members agreed Martin and Caler-Bell can assist with questions of those preparing proposals.

New environmental report

Martin said charts are being prepared that show how new chemical contamination identified in the March 2020 environmental report can affect different uses of the property. The charts will compare federal Risk Assessment Guidelines for various uses of areas of the property, including construction work and residential housing.

The report, titled, Targeted Brownfields Assessment Report, prepared for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, details contaminants found in soil and water samples taken from the riverbank, and from the Megunticook River in October 2019. Chemicals in excavation trenches on the riverbank and in the water, include volatile organic compounds, volatile petroleum hydrocarbons, extractable petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals and synthetic chemicals.