Twenty years after the demise of the last tannery on Washington Street, town officals and citizens are ready for another round of planning the future of the property, now owned by the town.

The site was polluted with chemicals by Apollo Tannery, which went out of business in 1999. Years later, the property underwent a major environmental cleanup conducted by the town. Since 2003, when the town acquired the property, it has been the focus of community discussions and work groups, proposed development plans, bitter battles, and town meeting votes. In the past two years, the site was named Tannery Park and has been home to the Camden Farmers' Market.

Upcoming developments for the property this year include a final environmental cleanup of residual chemicals in the soil. A 30-day public comment period on plans for alternative methods to handle the environmental cleanup of the property and a cleanup action plan will take place prior to the cleanup. Discussions will likely begin this month about creating a request for proposals for the development of the property at meetings of Camden's Community and Economic Development Advisory Committee. This week, the Select Board is expected to discuss a temporary home for the Camden Farmers' Market, because of planned environmental cleanup work at Tannery Park.

Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell has assigned the job of overseeing the cleanup and development process to Camden Planning, Development and Code Office Director Jeremy Martin.

Martin explained that Ransom Environmental Consulting, hired by the town to oversee the $200,000 Brownfields cleanup grant, is drafting a plan outlining alternative cleanup solutions and a cleanup action plan. These and other planning documents have to be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection before they go to the public for a 30-day comment period, he said.

Citizens involved in the most recent town-appointed Tannery Work Group, which wrapped up its work and produced a plan in 2017, are pushing forward with their vision of the park as the permanent home of the Camden Farmer's Market and a playground.

Steve Gold, one member of that group, is concerned that town officials have not invited the community involvement called for in the Brownfields cleanup process. "This required input was to begin even before the choice of a firm to design and oversee the remediation. None of this has been done," he wrote in a Feb. 11 email.

Gold, who has expressed his views at several recent Select Board meetings, said it is especially important for community involvement to inform any "forthcoming request for development proposals." He wants to make sure that environmental cleanup and any development proposal are "committed to the concept of a permanent home for the Camden Farmers' Market." He is also in favor of a public playground, and is not opposed to "a reasonably-sized commercial building" that fits in with the concept put forward by the Tannery Work Group. He wants to see a public meeting where Ransom would explain and field questions about the cleanup plan implementation and timing, and another meeting about any town request for development proposals.

Tom Resek, another Tannery Work Group member, wants to make sure there is community involvement in any work going forward on Tannery Park and said now is the time to hear from citizens. He said he has heard that the cleanup and remediation may be customized for future uses.

It is important for the community, the neighbors, the former members of the Tannery Work Group, to be part of the process of planning the cleanup, especially if it is tailored for future uses, he said. Resek wants to see any request for development proposals move forward the Work Group plan for a space for the Camden Farmers' Market, a playground and possibly a compatible building.

Resek and Craig Mudge, another Tannery Work Group member, agree that the sooner the community is part of the process, the sooner support can be built.

Mudge said that when he joined the Tannery Work Group he was astounded by the fact “that here's this wonderfully situated three and a half acres of land bordered by mature trees on one side, a beautiful stream on the other side, in a quiet neighborhood with relatively low traffic that's been used for nothing since 2003.”

His concern is that the work group and other groups "have gone through substantial efforts to build a bit of consensus around some attractive uses for this property" and that this work not be lost in another round of planning.

He also hopes to be able to take his grandchildren to the playground before they grow up. "We could begin the design, development and fundraising for that children's playground one minute from now, but now, we're waiting," he said.

Martin said Feb. 12 that CEDAC will assist with writing any request for proposals to develop Tannery Park. The committee meets monthly and in those meetings, "we will be talking about drafting an RFP," he said. He pointed out that the meetings are open to the public and anyone interested can attend. Martin said it is likely that an initial discussion about the Tannery property RFP would occur at the CEDAC meeting held later this month.

The Tannery Work Group's recommendations will be part of any RFP, according to Martin. While pointing out that the work group's drawing, laying out locations of the farmers' market, playground and a possible building is a schematic, he sees those elements — market, green space and some type of development consistent with town zoning rules in the River Business district — as part of a future plan. Martin also sees the property as located within a walkable half-mile of a new $30 million middle school and downtown Camden, and one of the only commercially zoned properties in Camden that is not already built on.

For now, the property remains a large vacant lot bordering the Megunticook River on one side and Washington Street on the other. It contains a sidewalk, massive shade trees and an old parking area along the street, grassy areas and field, large blocks of cracked concrete slabs, a hill of soil from the middle school construction site, more trees near the river, and the Riverwalk and easement owned by Coastal Mountains Land Trust.