Voters demand Main Street project changes; selectmen to ponder next step



MOUNT DESERT — By a margin of more than two to one, residents at the special town meeting here Monday night voted to direct the Board of Selectmen to consider major changes to Northeast Harbor’s $3.96 million Main Street redevelopment project. The vote was 97-45.

Now it is up to the selectmen to decide what, if any, changes to make in the project, which was approved 98-71 at the May 8 regular town meeting. Board Chairman John Macauley said Tuesday that the selectmen would hold an executive session Thursday to review their options and would discuss the matter in open session at their regular meeting this coming Monday.

The warrant article that voters approved directs the selectmen to consider delaying the project, which is currently set to begin Oct. 15, and to consider alternatives to burying utility lines under Main Street. That warrant article began as a citizens’ petition, which was signed this summer by 176 people.

Asked at the special town meeting if a “yes” vote on the warrant article would kill the Main Street project, Town Manager Durlin Lunt said, “If the select board did carry forth all of the major provisions of that article, yes, I believe that it would effectively kill the project…So, it would be in my judgment a poison pill.”

The town’s attorney, Andy Hamilton, had a different opinion.

“I do not personally, as the town attorney, agree with the view that a yes vote would kill the project,” he said. “I hasten to add that a no vote…would make more clear that the town wants to move forward with the project. But the Board of Selectmen can take the input from this town meeting and factor it against the vote that was taken on May 8.

“It was very clear,” he continued, “because…it called for both approval of the project and appropriation [for it]. There is nothing in the petition [which became the warrant article] that questions either the project or the appropriation.”

Hamilton said a yes vote “will not prevent the Board of Selectmen from moving forward because the petition format does not put in question the positive vote that occurred at the May 8 town meeting.”

He said the selectmen cannot substantially alter the project as it was described in the warrant article that passed in May. That description included the burying of utility lines.

Alan Joseph, who wrote the citizens’ petition, acknowledged prior to the vote Monday night that the May town meeting vote cannot be nullified.

“The project in some form or fashion is going to go forward,” he said. “But until we brought this petition up, it was going forward fast at 100 percent of how it was written. We brought it up to bring more discussion in…to get things to change.”

The Main Street project, as approved in May, 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 May town meeting vote, the selectmen awarded the construction contract to R.F. Jordan & Sons for $2.19 million. It will cost an additional $975,000 to have the electric, telephone and cable wires buried.

The project is to begin Oct. 15 and stop for the summer season just prior to Memorial Day. Then, work is to resume next October and be completed the following spring.

Joseph and others have objected to the cost of burying the utilities. Some Main Street merchants have said the disruption caused by having the street dug up will severely hurt their businesses.

Kelly Brown, who owns F.T. Brown Hardware with her husband, said she understands that the work is to be done only in the shoulder seasons.

“Some people may say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; you do all your business in the summer,’ but that’s not true,” she said. “Our summers are getting smaller and smaller…Now, you’re lucky if you get six solid weeks. And not just that, you’re fighting with the Amazon online shopping.”

Sam Shaw, who owns a jewelry store on Main Street, said he would vote against directing the selectmen to reconsider the project. He said he was particularly opposed to the section of the warrant article that read: “any development of buildings on Main Street be done first and the street and sidewalks be done last.”

“We’ve been waiting for eight years for those lots to get filled in,” Shaw said. “This [warrant article] is suggesting that all those buildings be completed before we do any improvements to the sidewalk or the infrastructure.”

He said that if that suggestion were to be followed, “We are absolutely stuck forever…This is suggesting that there is a finite end to building out Main Street before we do anything. That is a fatal flaw, in my opinion.”

Hamilton said that, while the major elements of the project that voters approved in May, such as burying the utilities, cannot legally be eliminated or substantially changed, the selectmen could look at altering the timing and phasing of the project and changing some pieces of it that were not specified in the May town meeting warrant article.

Following the vote on the citizens’ petition warrant article on Monday, residents voted on a shorter version that the selectmen had placed on the warrant but then recommended against passage.

That warrant article, which simply called for the selectmen to reconsider implementation of the project, passed 77-23.

The Warrant Committee had voted to recommend against passage of both of the Main Street warrant articles.

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. dbroom@mdislander.com