Figuring out what to do with an abandoned power plant and 450 acres adjacent to a former nuclear reactor site can challenge the best of visionaries. Wiscasset’s unusual challenge is opening the door do unusual creativity. With active community input, professional vision and the leadership and backing of a new corporate partner named National RE/sources, the future is looking brighter every day.

Mason Station, the now-defunct, colossal brick oil-fired power plant formerly run by Florida Power and Light on the Sheepscot River, will anchor a new “maritime village.” Before remediation of toxic contaminants on the site is even complete, ideas are being floated for new mixed office and light industrial development, single and multi-family housing, boardwalks, retail shops, offices, a culinary institute, and full service marina. The possibility of connecting the 30-acre site to downtown Wiscasset via a colonial-era oxcart path over White’s Island has been suggested. These are beautiful pictures in the mind and on paper, and the developer and local leaders are giddy with excitement. Meanwhile, phase one of a new industrial park is already under construction on land adjacent to the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant site, with at least one major tenant on board. Clearly, Wiscasset is on the move.

It is a welcome change for a town that was down on its luck not long ago. When Maine Yankee’s containment dome crashed to the ground last month, it signaled the end of an era. For years the reactor symbolized an uneasy balance between cheap electric power on one hand and the ominous possibility of core meltdown and disposal problems associated with spent radioactive fuel on the other. For the host town of Wiscasset, Maine Yankee also supplied a healthy stream of commercial tax revenues that kept local property owners happy — perhaps balancing the anxiety of having a nuclear reactor in town.

But when Maine Yankee was decommissioned, Wiscasset entered a dark period. As the nuke powered down, so did the gravy train, and residents grown accustomed to easy tax bills began to experience life as the rest of Maine knows it. “When the tax base was falling away and there was little new investment, Wiscasset was in a free-fall situation of municipal sea change. The town didn’t know what was ahead,” recounts Steve Cole of Coastal Enterprises Inc.(CEI), a statewide community development nonprofit based in Wiscasset.

Jeffrey Hinderliter, Wiscasset’s planner, acknowledges the trap of relying for years on comfortable treatment by the town’s two major industrial citizens — now departed. “The thing we never promoted before, and are hurting for now, is diversifying the tax base,” says Hinderliter. “All we rely on now is a lot of homes and high-end residential” for property taxes. In fact the real estate market in midcoast Maine is on fire. In Wiscasset, says Hinderliter, the planning board recently approved a new shopping center on a site of open fields and woods, and a 70-lot subdivision is proposed on Clark’s Point. But these developments are no match for the high-yielding commercial revenue Maine Yankee and Mason Station provided.

Creating new life for these two sites became the primary challenge of the Wiscasset Regional Development Corporation, which sought solutions for redeveloping the 30-acre Mason Station site and 450 acres of back land that was kept by Maine Yankee as “buffer.” CEI’s Steve Cole was on the redevelopment corporation and says both sites have a lot to offer, given the infrastructure already in place: Mason Station has deep water access on the Sheepscot, and public sewer, water, and railroad spurs make both sites fertile ground for industrial development.

All fine, except for the nagging stigma hanging over the land like nuclear fallout: what developer would want to take on the pitfalls and liabilities of nuclear contamination — real or imagined? “CEI and the Chewonki Foundation (the environmental education organization on neighboring Chewonki Neck) went to Maine’s congressional delegation and explained that it is difficult to develop a nuclear site,” says Cole. “The result was a $1 million HUD grant [from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] for the town and the region.”

They hired Brian Kent of Kent Associates, a Gardiner based land use planning and design firm, “to put forward a vision of how to do development there that fits in with landscape,” says Cole. “Both Brian and Don Hudson [of Chewonki] are working to integrate conservation and recreation with the redevelopment. They are pushing toward a new and more appropriate way of developing an old industrial site.”

Kent, Hudson and others revived a concept that was talked about in the 1980s for a greenway trail in town linking to others in the region. “It has been easy to see all along that if you could get through Maine Yankee, you could connect easily from Chewonki to town,” says Hudson. Six miles of greenway, blocked seemingly forever by Maine Yankee, now appears close to reality.

Brownfields and Greenfields

Wiscasset’s is a case of persistence and possibility converging to create change. “Brownfield” redevelopment, heralded as sprawl’s antidote and a catalyst for urban renewal, isn’t a well-practiced art in Maine. It is capital and risk-intensive. Ironically, the 450 acres adjacent to Maine Yankee is more a green field than brown. Since it has remained undeveloped, it now supports significant wildlife habitat, including a large deer wintering area.

Both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted radiological surveys of the Maine Yankee property and it came up clean. So while the 40 acres surrounding the reactor site at Bailey Point will remain under Maine Yankee ownership and a site for spent fuel storage, it was the state and FERC’s dispensation that allowed Maine Yankee to sell off the 450 acres to the north of Ferry Road. But the property still carries a nasty stigma, like having a fish rendering plant next door to your oceanfront home. If decommissioning Maine Yankee makes the land eligible, it requires an entity with the courage to challenge the radiation stigma.

Enter National RE/sources. The Greenwich, Connecticut-based firm specializes in brownfields redevelopment. Operating in Maine under the name “Point East Land Trust Development Company,” National RE/sources claims to have “acquired, remediated over $800 million of environmentally impaired properties…returning it to the tax rolls and providing new local employment opportunities.”

The company’s chosen name for its Maine operation says a lot about the way it wants to be perceived. To the uninitiated, “land trust development company” sounds like an oxymoron wrapped in a contradiction. Poe Cilley, the company’s Maine marketing and advertising director, acknowledges the duality. “It’s a two-headed animal,” says Cilley. “Our economic mission is to supplement the community tax base, but philosophically, it’s to enhance the natural assets — the beauty of the river.”

Even coming from the marketing department, that sounds too good to be true: a large corporate partner with a war chest of working capital rides into town with a mission to supplement the tax base and enhance natural resources by taking over two major industrial properties with real and perceived contamination issues. What’s the hitch? But talking with players involved, from Cilley to Hudson of Chewonki Foundation and town planner Jeffrey Hinderliter, one gets a sense of undaunted optimism: problems, and they do exist, can be overcome. It’s as if their collective belief in the possible was derived from overcoming the largest obstacle of all: finding a willing corporate partner to join in and make the Maine Yankee and Mason Station properties work again.

The Honeymoon

Point East bought the 450 acres adjacent to Maine Yankee as well as the 30-acre Mason Station site. “Mason Station has brownfield issues, but it’s a more conventional form of redevelopment that National RE/sources knows well, compromised in traditional ways and different from Maine Yankee,” says Cole. The company has retained Kent Associates and appears to share the recreational and conservation values embraced by the community, including the six-mile trail corridor. By considering Mason Station and Maine Yankee simultaneously, Kent is reaching beyond the constraints of site-specific design and engineering and shaping a single vision for miles of woodlands and shoreline along the Sheepscot and Back Rivers. The scale of integrated landscape planning and design now underway in Wiscasset is an uncommon occurrence in Maine.

The million-dollar HUD grant covered costs of mediating redevelopment issues associated with proximity to a nuclear facility. CEI’s role has been to shepherd this grant along, and help National RE/sources defray unusual costs. “This money has gone to do the necessary upfront research and due diligence, and get the necessary liability coverage to make a company feel good about coming there,” says CEI’s Cole. “No one has attempted to do standard commercial or industrial real estate development adjacent to a nuclear power plant. The owners are intelligent and careful people. They’ve decided that there is not undue risk.”

Wiscasset is certain to be viewed as a test case for future nuclear power plant redevelopment projects throughout the country. Dozens of nuclear reactors are due to be decommissioned in the coming years. Towns just like Wiscasset are losing their tax base and are searching for ways to recoup that. If National RE/sources’ bid at Maine Yankee works, the company will have a leg up the next time around. “They have a national scope of service and know there’ll be a succession of nuclear plant redevelopments in the country in the near future,” says Hudson. “They’ve worked through a complicated series of liability and insurance questions. They have included our conservation and recreation ideas in the plans. They are making sure that what gets redeveloped is a forward-thinking, 21st century approach to business practices. I am confident we’ll come out with a good outcome.”

Redevelopment of Maine Yankee and Mason Station are long-term projects that could take six to ten years to complete, according to Cilley. If Wiscasset can sustain the positive momentum it has now, the future looks bright for “the Prettiest Village in Maine.”