Main Street work going back to voters

MOUNT DESERT — A special town meeting will be held, likely in August, for voters to consider major changes to Northeast Harbor’s Main Street redevelopment project, which was approved at the annual town meeting two months ago.

The Board of Selectmen made that decision Monday night in response to a petition signed by 176 registered voters calling for the project to be delayed. The petition also asked the town to scrap plans to bury utility lines underground.

There were 176 names on the petition, 57 more than the number required to make the petition valid. That threshold number, 119, is 10 percent of the number of Mount Desert residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

According to the town charter, when the selectmen are presented with a valid petition, they have 45 days to either include it in the warrant for the next regular town meeting or call a special town meeting.

However, if the board determines that what the petitioners are requesting is “moot, illegal or impossible,” then they may refuse to present it to voters.

Residents at the May 8 town meeting voted 98-71 to authorize the town to borrow up to $3.96 million for “professional technical and construction services…to improve the appearance, functionality and vitality of the Main Street area.”

The total number of voters at town meeting, 169, was seven fewer than the number of people who signed the petition to reconsider.

The Main Street project, as approved, includes re-designing the intersections at each end of the street, building a sidewalk on the east side of the street, widening the sidewalk on the west side, burying utility lines beneath the street and putting in new street lights and plantings.

Following the town meeting vote, the selectmen awarded the construction contract to R.F. Jordan & Sons for $2.19 million. Public Works Director Tony Smith said Monday that the contract has not yet been signed.

It will cost the town an additional $975,000 to have the electric, telephone and cable wires on Main Street placed underground. The cost of construction administration and inspection services is estimated at $320,000.

Work on the Main Street project is to be done between the middle of October and late May over two years, starting this fall.

The petition to reconsider the plan was written by Alan Joseph, owner of Coastal Energy in Northeast Harbor.

It calls for changing the “time line of job schedule so as not to put in danger the viability and profitability of the last existing businesses on Main Street and surrounding streets.”

The petition now becomes a warrant article for the special town meeting. If it passes, it could postpone the Main Street project indefinitely. That’s because it calls for the street and sidewalk work to be delayed until all of the new construction planned for Main Street has been completed.

That section of the petition reads: “To reconsider and convey to developers, the town voters have voted in the positive to improve Main Street and that any development of buildings on Main Street be done first and that the streets and side walks be done last so as not to damage the new street and side walk to further damage due to future utility and construction work.”

Currently, plans for new buildings on five lots on the west side of Main Street are in various stages of development.

Rising Tide Partners (RTP), founded by John and Johanna Boynton, wants to build on two vacant lots on Main Street. The group is developing plans for a three-story building at 145 Main St., according to its website.

“Current plans call for a retail space or restaurant on the first floor and four to six rental apartments above,” the website says. “We are seeking input as well as investors as we solidify plans.”

Plans also are being developed for the lot at 131 Main St. which, according to the RTP website, “has the potential for both housing and retail.”

Two years ago, RTP replaced the former drug store building at 123 Main St. The new building houses a café/restaurant on the ground floor and co-working space above. Also on the second floor are the offices of the nonprofit organization Mount Desert 365 which is working to boost economic development and provide workforce housing.

MD365 last year purchased the buildings at 147 and 149 Main St. and the vacant lot at 151 Main St. The organization announced last month that it plans to remove the two structures and to build on all three lots.

“We are looking at possibilities for each of those, to provide commercial space on the ground floor and residences up above,” MD365 Executive Director Kathy Miller said.

MD365 has not announced a schedule for removing the existing buildings, but it recently notified the tenants of both buildings that their leases would not be extended beyond this year.

In addition to delaying the Main Street project, the petition that went to the Board of Selectmen calls for reconsidering the decision to tear up Main Street in order to bury electric, telephone and cable lines. The Mount Desert Water District is to replace the water main beneath Main Street at the same time.

But Joseph, who is a member of the water district board, told the Board of Selectmen at their June 18 meeting that the water district had not previously been planning to replace that main anytime soon.

Joseph and several Main Street business owners told the selectmen that, instead of burying the utility lines, it would be far less costly and disruptive to bring them in via poles behind the buildings on the west side of the street. “By bringing it in from behind…you don’t have to blow up Main Street,” Joseph said.

The petition that was presented to the selectmen also asks the town to “consider the options of incentivizing developers, established businesses and future businesses to help sustain future growth of an economical and viable Main Street.”

Joseph told the selectmen Monday night that he thinks summer residents, most of whom can’t vote in Mount Desert but who pay a huge share of the property taxes, should be much more aware of what the Main Street project entails.

“The people I’ve talked to, a lot of them don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I think it would be nice to have a town meeting while the summer people are here so they can participate and get a real feel for exactly what [the town] is trying to do here.

“I’m just amazed at the number of people, even local people, who didn’t even know some of the things that were going to be done,” he continued.

Kelly Brown who, with her husband, Tom, owns F.T. Brown Hardware on Main Street, thanked the selectmen for calling a special town meeting.

“The idea of a town meeting, with the summer residents, I think it a great way to join us all together,” she said. “This could be a nice turning point.”

The petition will go on the town meeting warrant exactly as written; the selectmen can’t change it.

But they said they likely will develop an alternative warrant article for voter consideration that is worded differently but would have much the same intent.

“It would help clarify and give us actions, which aren’t in the original wording of the petition,” board Chairman John Macauley said.

A public hearing on the two warrant articles will be held prior to the special town meeting.

The selectmen voted in open session Monday night to accept the petition and to call a special town meeting. Before that, they met in executive session to talk about the issue and their options by phone with attorneys Jon Pottle and David Pearson of Eaton Peabody, the Bangor firm that provides legal counsel to the town.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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