Stretching across portions of Westbrook, Scarborough and Gorham, Smiling Hill Farm is known widely for the milk, ice cream and other dairy products sold in its store and at local supermarkets.
The 500-acre, 13th-generation family operation includes Hillside Lumber, a building supplier and saw mill that sits on the crest of the hill off County Road (Route 22) in Westbrook. The Knights also tap maple trees for syrup in the spring and welcome cross-country skiers on groomed trails when winter weather cooperates.
But some of the farm’s woodlands lie directly in the preferred path of the proposed Gorham Connector that the Maine Turnpike Authority announced this week. Designed to reduce commuter congestion west of Portland, the 5-mile route was marked on an aerial photo with a yellow line stretching from Maine Turnpike Exit 45 in South Portland to the Gorham Bypass at Route 114 in Gorham.
That’s all Warren Knight, 65, and his five siblings know about the authority’s plan to build a four-lane highway across land they describe as “an agricultural oasis amidst the suburban sprawl of Maine’s largest city.”
And they’re not happy about it.
“Smiling Hill Farm has not agreed to sell any land to any entity,” Knight said after reading the news in the Press Herald. “We’re not interested in making our farm smaller.”
Knight said family members have had only vague conversations with authority representatives about the connector. No formal plans have been presented. No offer has been made. “We’re completely in the dark,” he said.
Moreover, Knight said, his family has worked too hard to preserve its diversified operation to consider selling part of it. He compared the 304-year-old farm to any other business that requires certain minimum assets to survive.
“We have avoided selling and purchased land to prevent development nearby that’s not compatible with agriculture,” he said. “A restaurant requires a certain number of tables. A theater requires a certain number of seats. And a farm requires a certain amount of land. Any reduction in required assets jeopardizes the entire enterprise.”
AVOIDING WETLAND IMPACTS
What that means for the future of the connector is unclear.
The authority announced Tuesday that it has purchased enough land to build 35% of the connector along the identified route, although some dispute whether adding another highway is the best way to relieve traffic congestion.
In the works for over a decade, the regional toll road will be the subject of the first of possibly several public meetings to be held in March in Gorham, with the exact date and location to be announced.
The project has been endorsed by the Legislature, the Maine Department of Transportation and the municipalities of Gorham, Scarborough, Westbrook and South Portland, said Peter Mills, executive director of the authority.
It’s expected to cost more than $200 million – published estimates run as high as $240 million – and be funded by toll revenue, not taxes, Mills said. The toll rate for the connector has yet to be determined, but the project won’t increase tolls on the turnpike, he said. Construction could start as early as 2026 and be completed by 2030.
Mills said the connector route has been designed to avoid and mitigate environmental impacts wherever possible in anticipation of community concerns and reviews by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversee construction in and near wetlands and waterways.
He told the Press Herald on Tuesday that the route passes through a small wooded wetland area on the west side of Smiling Hill Farm near the Westbrook-Scarborough line. Pressed for a firmer answer on Friday, the authority said in an email that the land necessary for the project is at the far western edge of the farm, away from the barnyard and the lumber business, but an exact number of acres has yet to be determined.
Knight said that description downplays the catastrophic effect of taking any land from the farm.
“Smiling Hill Farm does not have any inactive land,” he said. “All our land assets actively contribute to our agriculture and (other) businesses.”
Mills emphasized that the route greatly minimizes impacts to Red Brook, a tributary to Clarks Pond in South Portland that begins in a wetland area north of County Road in Scarborough and is active habitat for brook trout.
“Smiling Hill Farm is the headwaters of Red Brook,” Knight said. “I fished there as a kid.”
SLIGHT CHANGES POSSIBLE
The route also passes through a large parcel owned by Ecomaine, the regional trash-to-energy incinerator, and a 40-acre swath of the former Gorham Country Club that the authority purchased last year for $1.4 million, Mills said.
While Mills and municipal officials described the proposed route as the connector’s “specific location,” they said public feedback might bring slight changes.
“We have spent $4.5 million so far on land for the project, including three houses,” Mills said this week. “The land acquired occupies about 204 acres. Under the current alignment, there are five other houses that may need to be purchased, but there could be others depending on the final plans.”
Mills said he has met with at least 60 property owners who either live near the proposed route or may be affected by the road. So far, the authority has used eminent domain only once for this project, to acquire a parcel that otherwise might have been developed, he said. All other properties have been purchased by agreement with the owners and future acquisitions aren’t expected to bring court challenges, he said.
On Friday, the turnpike authority clarified that eminent domain would only be used as a last resort.
“Given the continued conversations with the family, we hope that we can come to a mutual agreement,” it said.
FEAR OF EMINENT DOMAIN
The fixed start and end points of the connector limit the route in many ways, the authority said, but the permitting agencies wanted to consider a range of alternative routes, including many that would place the highway through the farm’s field area.
The authority said it “successfully persuaded the agencies that the field areas should not be used.”
The Knights say they understand the need to address traffic congestion. They just don’t want Smiling Hill Farm to be penalized for it.
Warren Knight believes the preferred connector route prioritizes protecting homes and wetlands over farmland. If the authority wants to take part of the farm, he said, it will have to be replaced with similar land contiguous to the farm.
“That’s not likely,” he acknowledged. “But the connector does not have to go through or even touch our farm.”
Michael Knight, 62, also questions whether the connector has to go through any part of Smiling Hill Farm.
When Knight met with Mills two weeks ago, he said, the authority chief assured Knight that he was trying to minimize the impact on the farm. Knight said Mills told him that the Army Corps initially wanted to build the connector right through the middle of the farm.
But Mills still wouldn’t say exactly which land or how many acres the authority wants, Knight said.
“I’m afraid they’re going to take it by eminent domain and I’ll be left to run a struggling farm” he said.