TREMONT — During a contentious Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday, two neighbors of the building known as Pacific Hall voiced strong opposition to the school using the building.
While school and town officials tried to explain the option was being explored because of a lack of space at the Tremont Consolidated School, both vocalized concerns and one demanded a buffer be installed between her property and the town’s newly acquired property.
On Tuesday evening, the Planning Board looked over a site plan review application submitted by the town for a change of use of the building located at either 735 or 737 Tremont Road, depending which source one refers to, and unanimously found it complete. Residents voted in favor of accepting the building as a donation to the town at the July annual Town Meeting ballot vote.
Several people stood outside the town office waiting to attend the meeting because the Harvey Kelley Meeting Room was at its 20-person capacity set for COVID-19 standards. Fire Chief Keith Higgins noted during the discussion regarding Pacific Hall that he had asked to have the item put on the agenda and had notified neighboring residents about it.
“I have no doubt that Mr. Gousse and our principal are always going to protect the kids,” he said after explaining to members of the public that it wasn’t an open meeting and questions and comments needed to be directed at the selectmen. “My thing is, I have the authority over that building being absolutely safe for everyone that occupies it. That’s my burden that I carry.”
Higgins then said that an alarm company contacted him to install a fire alarm system. He told the board he emailed the company and asked them not to install anything.
“You can’t do one thing or spend one dollar on changing that building until you’ve told them what you’re going to do with the building,” said Higgins to the selectmen. “How it’s going to be done… We need to do this in the right order and I haven’t see it happen… You need to figure out a plan.”
Higgins has been vocal in previous meetings that the building may not be the best choice for the school to use in trying to resolve its issues with lack of space.
School officials said the town approached them about using the building earlier this year because a prekindergarten program that was supposed to begin this school season was postponed because of the pandemic. Students in that program were going to be bussed to Southwest Harbor to attend a half-day program at Pemetic Elementary School because there is no room for it at the Tremont school.
One of the more vocal neighbors asked why the school would consider taking the youngest children to a different location where they wouldn’t have access to a playground.
“It’s not safe,” she said. “If you’ve ever lived in that area, you understand people do not drive the speed limit.
“I have kids of that age that would be in that church; it’s not a good idea,” she added. “Keep them there at the school where they can get food… You’re dealing with younger kids that need to go outside and play, you want to move them away from the playground? Take them away from food?”
“I’m not here to debate with anybody,” said Gousse, who was then interrupted by the woman. “I came here because I was asked to come here. I want to be really clear about something. We’re not trying to do anything; we’re exploring some options, period.
“If there are parents that are upset, if there are neighbors that are upset, there’s a process. Aside from what the [Board of Selectmen] may choose to do and the Planning Board. The school committee, my bosses, will have the ultimate say on any recommendations,” added Gousse. “We’re here to work with people, but working with people means communication.”
One of the reasons there has been a push to see if the building would work for the school is the fact that there is about $170,000 in COVID relief money available to the school until the end of the year. Principal Jandrea True explained to members of the board in their meeting last week that the funds would be used for several things, not just for exploring the use of, and possibly renovations to, the building.
“Nothing has gone that far yet,” board chairman Jamie Thurlow said at the meeting Monday. “Me, personally, just to note, my children would be one of the children that would be attending this school, as well as another member on here. We definitely want to make sure that everything is checked out. Is how it should be. Is permitted properly. I’m definitely not going to see that anything gets overlooked, that’s for sure.”
Town Manager Chris Saunders explained the Planning Board’s process to those gathered.
“Tomorrow night’s Planning Board meeting is just to determine if the application is complete,” he explained. “There will be no decision for at least three weeks as to whether or not that site can be used for school use.”