Northeast Harbor project on hold; complaints persist

MOUNT DESERT — The Main Street redevelopment project in Northeast Harbor won’t be starting Oct. 15 as scheduled.

At this point, that’s pretty much the only thing about the project that’s certain.

Members of the Board of Selectmen Monday night informally agreed to delay a decision on how to proceed with the project until their Oct. 1 meeting. There also appeared to be a consensus that some elements of the project are likely to be modified.

The $3.96-million project, as approved 98-71 at the May 8 town meeting, was to include redesigning 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, improving drainage, burying utility lines beneath the street and putting in new street lights and plantings.

Following the town meeting, some Main Street business owners and others complained that the planning process had involved too little public deliberation and engagement. They objected to the cost of burying the utilities and the disruption it would cause, saying it would severely hurt their businesses

A petition they circulated calling for reconsideration of the timing of the project and the plan to bury the utilities was signed by 176 people, prompting the selectmen to hold a special town meeting Sept. 10. At that meeting, the petition calling for reconsideration of key aspects of the project passed 97-45. A similar warrant article that called for a general reconsideration of the project passed 77-23.

The selectmen maintain they must honor the May 8 town meeting vote. Certain components of the project, they have said, as approved May 8 cannot legally be changed or eliminated. At the same time, they said, they respect the wishes of those who voted to have the project reconsidered.

“I didn’t get the impression that most people at the [special town] meeting wanted to scrap the whole thing,” Selectman Martha Dudman said at Monday’s board meeting.

“I came away feeling that we needed to rework the plan and come up with something that more people can agree on. We’re not here to stuff something down the town’s throat if it’s not what the town wants. I’m in favor of modifying the project to reflect the goals of the people who live in this town.”

The part of the project that has drawn the most criticism is the plan to bury utility lines beneath Main Street. However, the warrant article that passed at the town meeting in May specified that the project would include “burying the overhead utility wires.”

Board of Selectmen Chairman John Macauley said at Monday’s meeting that the town would adhere to that provision.

“It does say we’re going to bury power lines, but it doesn’t say we’re going to bury all power lines,” he said of the warrant article. “So, there are areas that we can, in good faith, tinker with.”

Macauley asked Public Works Director Tony Smith to bring together as soon as possible representatives of power company Emera Maine and the Mount Desert Water District.

The Water District would replace the water lines beneath Main Street if it is dug up in order to bury the other utilities. Macauley said he wanted all the key players in the same room at the same time “to make sure everybody is hearing the same thing and you’re working through this.”

“Emera is hard to schedule,” Smith replied, “but I will make the attempt.”

Selectman Rick Mooers asked Smith to provide the board with a cost-benefit analysis of possible alternatives to burying all the utility lines.

On Tuesday, a notice on the town’s website announced that the Village Center Planning Committee, which worked on plans for the Main Street project, would meet “in the near future” to review possible modifications.

It said that anyone may sign up on the website’s home page to receive meeting notices.

Macauley said he would like the board to have Smith’s cost-benefit analysis, a report from the meeting with the utility companies and the Village Center Planning Committee’s input before the board’s next meeting Oct. 1. But even if the board is able to make a final decision then, the start of the project will be delayed.

The schedule that Smith and the contractor, R.F. Jordan & Sons, had agreed on called for work to start Oct. 15 and to stop for the summer May 24. Most of the work was to be done during those seven-plus months. Final paving and landscaping was to be done between Oct. 15 and Dec. 6 next year.

Smith indicated it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the contractor to start work Oct. 15 with only two week’s notice.

“They had hoped to have things ordered by now,” he said.

Also, before work can start, the Planning Board must approve Smith’s application for a conditional use permit for the Main Street project. The project was set to be reviewed by the Planning Board Oct. 10, but that is no longer possible.

“Typically, you have to get your permit application completed, including sketches, three weeks before the date of the Planning Board meeting,” Smith said. “So I will ask them to pull [the original application] and I’ll apply at another time.”

On Monday, Town Manager Durlin Lunt received a letter from Stephen Hanscom, a Rockland attorney retained this summer by some of the Main Street business owners.

“Please provide me within the next 10 business days with the plan for what steps are to be taken by the town in reconsidering this project and what revisions to the existing plan will be presented by the town,” Hanscom wrote. “My clients have advised me that they wish to avoid litigation if at all possible…”

Lunt told the selectmen that the town’s attorney, Andy Hamilton, would be talking with Hanscom.

“I think they will be able to hammer out an [understanding],” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a huge barrier to overcome.”

Kelly Brown, who owns F.T.Brown Hardware on Main Street with her husband, Tom, said they and the other business owners had retained Hanscom “mainly to have somebody clarify things for us and to find out what we had as a right [regarding] our petition and following it through.”

“We all agreed we don’t want this to be combative,” she said.

Feeling “sad and hated”

The Main Street project is the most contentious issue the selectmen have dealt with since the debate two years ago over allowing cruise ships to bring passengers to Northeast Harbor.

Emotions have run high, discussions have sometimes been heated and a few people have taken their anger out on members of the board.

“I came away from the [special town] meeting feeling sad and kind of hated, frankly,” Dudman told those at Monday’s board meeting.

“I want you to know this: I love this town. I want to do whatever I can to maintain and strengthen our year-round community because this is my home.”

She said she hopes the people of the town can come together “to make a plan that we can all kind of agree on.”

Selectman Wendy Littlefield said that in the week before the special town meeting, “I had been called many names. I had been on walks and been referred to as many things.

“I, too, wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a passion for this community.”

She said she has talked with people who favored reconsidering the Main Street project who share her passion for the town.

“I don’t think any of us want to do anything to this community that’s going to be harmful,” she said.

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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