Town garage option still up in the air

Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen. BRIAN SWARTZ PHOTO

SOUTHWEST HARBOR  Town officials can’t seem to move forward with a plan for a new town garage. 

During their Zoom meeting Tuesday night, when Town Manager Justin VanDongen asked members of the Board of Selectmen to authorize him to make an offer on a garage located on Mountain View Road, no one offered a motion to do so.  

“It looks like support for this has crumbled,” said board Chairman Kristin Hutchins. “What is our next step for winter? We’ve got no safe place for the men to work, correct?” 

Insurance on the current public works building has lapsed, and it currently has a liabilityonly policy covering the equipment inside. VanDongen has expressed concern that a heavy snowfall could collapse the weakened roof, putting equipment and employees at risk. His goal was to have an option for the selectmen, which would offer housing for equipment or provide a space for maintenance work, by the time the snow flew. But the season’s first snow came on Election Day. 

Voters opted against constructing a new town garage for $1.9 million at the ballot town meeting in July by nine votes, 280 in favor and 289 against. Members of the Board of Selectmen had chosen a bid for $1.9 million, which was the lowest out of four submitted for the job, to put before voters. Site work made up a large chunk of that amount, with the actual building structure coming in under $200,000.  

When that vote failed, selectmen decided to go back to the drawing board and look at constructing a less expensive building or finding an existing building in which equipment could be stored through the winter season.  

A large garage on Mountain View Road, owned by three people and of a similar size to the proposed new structure, was brought to the town manager at the end of the summer as an option. 

While it seemed like an ideal option because of its location, adjacent to the Seal Cove Road public works property on the north side, initial negotiations stalled because one owner was not interested in selling. Eventually, that owner agreed to the sale of the building if one garage bay could be leased by them for use. Originally that lease was to be for five years. During the meeting on Tuesday, VanDongen said the lease had been reduced to three years, with two options to extend for a year each beyond that time. 

Several residents of Mountain View Road attended the meeting to vocalize their concerns about the town moving into the building that sits on about 3.5 acres. A letter outlining several of the concerns had already been sent to the town. 

“We’re concerned about noise,” said Dennis Dever, a resident of the road. “The Mountain View Road is not built to the standard it should be; it’s a very thin, gravel layer. All of the work is voluntary with privatelyowned equipment. Basically, it’s me, a bucket loader and a rake.  

“We’re concerned that more use, heavy use of vehicles that might be at a town garage, would disproportionately add wear and tear to the road.” 

If the town were to acquire the property, there are plans to connect it to the town’s current property, which would mean building a bridge across an area of Marshall Brook. 

“I just want you to know that flood plain and brook that you intend to cross is a pickle,” Dever added. “That’s going to be a very expensive venture building that crossing. You’re going to be taking out upwards of 400 feet of forest. You’re making another crossing on a brook that’s already stressed by them.” 

When asked what he estimated the cost for putting in the road would be, VanDongen said about a quarter of a million dollars.  

Another neighbor, Terri Rodick, voiced concern about her property values declining, and how the noise and activity would affect her since the garage can be seen from her front window.  

“The amount of operations that are our noisiest will continue at our current site,” VanDongen said in response about such things as loading plow trucks with sand. “Most of the work that will be done inside this is our maintenance.” 

“I strongly disagree that it’s going to be a non-issue for me,” said Rodick, who then asked what was wrong with the current property for a new building. 

“I don’t think the town would be a good neighbor,” said John Stanley, who also lives on the road and questioned why the amount to build a new garage was so high. “I think someone’s taking advantage of the town.” 

Selectmen previously discussed what amount they would be willing to pay to purchase the building on Mountain View Road. An offer of $575,000 was put before the board on Tuesday, which was higher than the high end of what the board was willing to pay, according to Hutchins.  

“I think we know what it’s going to cost us to build a building and it’s more than that,” said VanDongen. He then suggested the town might be able to lease a bay of the garage for the winter to do maintenance, but it would need to be retrofitted.   

Selectman Chad Terry asked if leasing would be contingent upon a purchase and sale agreement.  

“I’m not in favor of the project,” said selectman George Jellison. “I’ve been watching this. With the people coming forward, I just don’t think this is the right way to go.” 

“The town garage is not the neighbor that these neighbors would like to have,” said Hutchins. “I’m very disappointed that we can’t see our way clear to work through this.”
After there was a suggestion to contract out for vehicle maintenance or to see if using garage space at John Goodwin Jr.’s business, next to the town property, would work, VanDongen, visibly frustrated, said, “I don’t have a good answer tonight. I think we have to wait until our next meeting to come up with alternatives to this. I don’t have off-the-cuff options for this.”  

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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