MOUNT DESERT — Voters will decide at a special town meeting Sept. 10 whether to proceed with redevelopment of Main Street in Northeast Harbor as approved at the May 8 regular town meeting or to have town officials consider delaying and revising the project.
The Board of Selectmen voted Monday night to schedule the special town meeting after nearly two hours of discussion by board members, other town officials and members of the public. About 100 people attended the selectmen’s meeting, which was moved from the Town Hall meeting room to the elementary school gymnasium because of the expected large turnout.
A public hearing on two warrant articles having to do with the Main Street project will be held Aug. 20.
One warrant article will be the petition signed by 176 registered voters and presented to the selectmen in late June that calls for reconsidering the plan to bury the electrical, telephone and cable wires beneath Main Street and, instead, to string the lines from Tracy Road to the back of the buildings on the west side of Main Street. Critics of the current plan have said that would be far less disruptive and likely less expensive than burying the utilities.
The petition also asked town officials to reconsider the timeline for the project. It has been set to start Oct. 15 and halt for the 2019 summer season on May 24, then resume Oct. 15 of next year and be completed by Dec. 6.
Several Main Street business owners said that having construction going on this fall and next spring would severely hurt their businesses.
“I’m scared,” Kelly Brown, co-owner of F T Brown Hardware, said at the meeting Monday. “I know there will not be construction in the summer, but I’m concerned about the shoulder seasons. Those shoulder months are critical.”
The citizens’ petition asked town officials to consider postponing the Main Street project until the construction of any new buildings on the street has been completed. Currently, the developments of five lots on the west side of Main Street are in various stages of planning.
Finally, the petitioners asked that the town consider “the options of incentivizing developers, established businesses and future businesses to help sustain future growth of an economical and viable Main Street.”
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 project, as approved, includes re-designing the intersections at each end of Main Street, building a sidewalk on the east side of the street, widening the sidewalk on the west side, burying utility lines and putting in new street lights and plantings.
Andy Hamilton, the town’s attorney, said at Monday’s meeting that, even though the petition calling for changes in the project will be on the special town meeting warrant, there is “not a lot of wiggle room” because the warrant article that was approved at the town meeting in May was “pretty specific.” He noted that the warrant article’s description of the project included burying utility lines beneath Main Street.
Following the May town meeting vote, the selectmen awarded the Main Street construction contract to R.F. Jordan & Sons for $2.19 million. It would cost the town an additional $975,000 to have the utility wires placed underground. The cost of construction, administration and inspection services is estimated at $320,000.
The second warrant article on the special town meeting warrant was drafted by town officials and approved by the selectmen Monday night. If it passes, the selectmen would again consider the questions raised in the petition before deciding how to proceed. If it fails, the Main Street project would go ahead as currently planned.
However, funding for the project and many of its components, such as placing utility lines underground, were part of the warrant article that passed at the May 8 town meeting. And according to town attorney Andy Hamilton, that decision cannot be reversed by a subsequent town meeting vote.
Therefore, Board of Selectmen Chairman John Macauley told the Islander on Wednesday, “The only changes that might be made are changes in implementation, which would be expected anyway during any project.”
At their July 16 meeting, the selectmen asked Public Works Director Tony Smith and the town’s outside consultants to evaluate the feasibility of the four proposals in the citizens’ petition.
The consultants, engineering firm CES, Inc. and landscape architects Richardson & Associates, responded with a report dated Aug. 3. They said that stringing utility wires overhead from Tracy Road instead of burying them under Main Street “could produce several challenges.” Among those, they said, would be acquiring permanent easements from a number of neighboring properties.
“This could be challenging, time consuming and costly,” they wrote. “Furthermore, the installation of additional services from behind Main Street may restrict the development potential for many of the businesses both on Main Street and those that are adjacent to Main Street.”
In addition, the consultants wrote, moving the utility services from the front of the Main Street buildings to the back could mean “moving meters and reconstructing utility layouts inside buildings.”
“This would be a labor-intensive coordination effort and would significantly increase project costs associated with work on private property.”
In a separate memo to the selectmen, Smith advocated burying the utility lines. In addition to the other advantages, he said, this would allow the Fire Department to bring its ladder truck to Main Street to fight fires.
Fire Chief Mike Bender said at Monday’s meeting, “Because of the many overhead utility lines on Main Street, we made the determination back in 2002 when we got our first aerial ladder that we wouldn’t deploy that truck anywhere on Main Street. We cannot use it safely there because of the wires.”
He said that in the event of a major fire on Main Street, his firefighters and those from neighboring towns have to bring their ladder trucks in behind the buildings from Tracy Road.
“And that poses a little bit of an issue because we don’t have full access to all the buildings on Main Street from Tracy Road,” he said. “So, from a fire protection point of view, removing the wires from Main Street would really benefit us.”
As for the petitioners’ request to consider changing the time-frame for the Main Street project, the engineering and landscape architect consultants wrote, “The targeted construction dates of mid-October to mid-May during the ‘off season’ will balance the construction needs of the project with the least amount of disturbance to the businesses involved.”
Smith said in another Aug. 2 memo to the selectmen that he had asked the project manager for R.F. Jordan & Sons if he could “hold his price for 12 months.”
“He said he could not,” Smith wrote. “He was already having trouble working with his suppliers to hold the prices for materials they had given him when he prepared his bid. Both the contractor and the suppliers had expected to have a signed contract in place with us enabling them both to lock in their prices weeks ago.”
Smith said in his memo and at the selectmen’s meeting Monday that, except for occasional minor delays, one-way traffic would be maintained on Main Street for the duration of the project.
The petitioners’ request that the Main Street improvements be delayed until the construction of any new buildings has been completed was deemed “impractical” by the town’s consultants.
“The plan does, however, provide utility stubs for future connections and encourages new development within and around the Main Street corridor,” they wrote.
Responding to the petitioners’ request that the town consider “incentivizing” developers and business owners to help sustain the vitality of Main Street, the consultants wrote, “The recommendations outlined within the approved Northeast Harbor Village Center Plan are an incentive…The recommended changes will attract new businesses, encourage existing businesses to stay in the village and create incentive for visitors to spend more time and more money in Northeast Harbor.”
The citizens’ petition doesn’t request changes in the Main Street redevelopment plan, but only that changes be “considered.”
Hamilton, the town’s attorney, said at Monday’s meeting that the selectmen could determine that, in reviewing the consultants’ report and listening to residents, they have “considered” the requested changes, and thus, they could rule that the petition is moot.
According to the town charter, if the selectmen deem the request of any citizens’ petition to be “moot, illegal or impossible,” then they may refuse to present it to voters.
However, Hamilton said that if the selectmen did that, one or more of the petitioners could go to any notary public, “and the notary public, under Maine law, could bring this to the special town meeting.”
Given these circumstances, the selectmen voted to place the petition on the special town meeting warrant.
They also voted to accept the outside consultants’ report, and they adopted a resolution in support of implementing the Main Street project as approved at the May 8 town meeting.
Smith told the Islander Tuesday that the Main Street project is “on hold” until after the Sept. 10 vote.
“The price is being held by the contractor – for now,” he said in an email.