A gazebo stands in a park with bare trees and a partly sunny blue sky in the background
A group of Thomaston residents have filed a petition to prevent the former site of the state prison from being developed. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

THOMASTON, Maine ― In the 20 years since the old Maine State Prison was torn down, the 15-acre parcel along Route 1 in Thomaston where it stood has remained undeveloped open space.

Now, a group of residents have filed a petition to keep the site that way forever.

The citizen’s petition, submitted last month, asks voters to decide whether or not the town should permanently dedicate the entire site, known as the Thomaston Green, as a public park for recreational uses and community events. For decades, the town has tried to attract development to the green to bring in tax revenue. But, attempts to develop the property beyond being just a green space have never panned out.

Over the last 20 years, the green has become a popular place for walking and general recreation. The town has built a gazebo there and the site is also sometimes used for community events.

While the fate of the Thomaston Green will ultimately be up to voters, some town officials feel dedicating the entirety of the site for use as a park would eliminate opportunities for needed housing development, tax growth and potentially a future home for a new emergency services building.

“It’s a tough one, it’s a really tough one. I commend the citizens who have gone out there and talked to their neighbors and have gotten all the support behind it. I take that very seriously,” Thomaston Select Board member Zel Bowman-Laberge said. “If in the end the Thomaston Green never gets developed, I just hope we can all work together to find other ways to develop housing projects in Thomaston or find other ways to offset some of the expense and increase the tax base.”

The Thomaston Select Board accepted the petition, submitted by the Friends of Thomaston Green, on Monday, Feb. 28. By law, once the collected signatures are verified, the petition’s question must go before voters at the next town meeting, which is slated for June.

The town purchased the property from the state in 2005. Over the years, the town has made investments at the site, like building a road and extending some utilities, such as sewer lines, onto the site to make it ready for development, according to Thomaston Select Board member Bill Hahn, who has been involved with efforts to redevelop the site over the last 20 years.  

But the town has recently resisted efforts for development including in September 2020 when   voters rejected two proposals that would have established housing ― both for older adults and people with disabilities ―  on a portion of the site.

Hahn said the town has always intended to retain a portion of the site, including a walking path that runs along the south end of the property, as public space.

Thomaston is currently working on developing a parks and recreation master plan for public spaces and trails across town. Potential future uses for the Thomaston Green will be included in the plan, though those recommended uses are primarily centered around how the site can serve as a launching point for access to the town’s network of trails, according to John Fancy, the town’s pollution control superintendent, who has been involved in the plan development process.

The Thomaston Green has also recently been discussed as a potential site for a new fire and EMS building, though no formal plans have been developed.

Both Bowman-Laberge and Hahn said they would be in favor of having the green used as a recreation area, but also with space for some limited development.

“Speaking for myself, I think maybe it should be developed more than nothing but probably not as intensively as was suggested 15 or 18 years ago,” Hahn said. “My personal opinion is some sort of development on the Main Street side of the property and leave the rest of it for recreational use of some sort.”