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HARPSWELL — A judge Wednesday ruled against a local nonprofit in its lawsuit to prevent demolition of the Mitchell Field water tower.
The decision allows the town to tear down the tower as scheduled this month.
Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Andrew M. Horton’s written decision followed a hearing in Portland Aug. 28 and oral arguments Aug. 31.
Horton said the Select Board did not “unreasonably refuse to call a town meeting” in response to Friends of Mitchell Field’s 351-signature petition in May, which sought a re-vote on demolition of the tower.
Horton said selectmen reasonably decided the group’s petition dealt with “essentially the same question” that had been decided at Town Meeting: whether to tear the tower down or not.
According to the court file, Maine law does not force a municipal or school board to schedule a re-vote after receiving a petition when an issue has already been decided on by the electorate. In Harpswell’s case, the electorate is Town Meeting.
Friends of Mitchell Field, which said the tower could be saved and used to improve cellular reception in town, filed the lawsuit July 25.
Town Attorney Amy Tchao represented the town, while attorney Chris Neagle of Troubh-Heisler in Portland represented the Friends.
The town signed a demolition contract with Michigan-based Iseler Demolition July 26. But Horton temporarily halted the work last month until after he could hear arguments.
The Friends’ suit challenged the town’s demolition plan, and the Board of Selectmen’s rejection of its request for a re-vote, claiming voters did not have all necessary information before Town Meeting.
In its complaint, the Friends argued the Harpswell selectmen “obstructed their efforts” to preserve the Mitchell Field water tower “in a variety of ways” including by “preventing them from presenting information materials” at Town Meeting in March.
After the town rejected its initial petition, Friends of Mitchell Field submitted a petition to a notary public and attempted to call an unsanctioned Town Meeting for a re-vote.
The town argued its original rejection of the petition was not unreasonable, and the Friends’ call for a special Town Meeting after the rejection of the first petition was invalid. The court agreed.
According to Horton, the Friends’ petition calling for a special Town Meeting “was not a valid basis for convening town meeting” under state law.
The Friends also alleged that selectmen who chaired the Water Tower Task Force “were biased” and prevented the task force “from meaningful exploration for saving the water tower.”
But Horton said the group “failed to prove anything rising to the level of impropriety.”
The Task Force was formed in 2015 to provide written recommendations for future uses of the tower.
Horton said the record did not show Chairman Rick Daniel “imposed his viewpoint in an inappropriate manner” while leading the Task Force.
“The allegation that the town staff was biased against saving the tower is similarly not supported in the record,” the judge said.
Tchao on Wednesday said the town is “very pleased” with the decision.
“I think it vindicated the town’s handling of this situation from start to finish,” she said. “It was a very fair, thorough and comprehensive decision by the judge.”
She said there are “no legal barriers” now to demolition of the tower, and town staff has been told the contractor is prepared to do the work the week of Sept. 17.
Prior to the decision, Tchao had said both parties agreed they would abide by Horton’s ruling.
The next step for anyone not satisfied with the outcome, she said, would be to appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Friends of Mitchell Field member Robert McIntyre on Wednesday said the group would meet Thursday to discuss whether it will file an appeal.
“We really need to talk to the attorney and talk to other members of the Friends and reach a conclusion, but we need to act fast,” he said.
McIntyre said he expected the Friends would have an “opinion” about how to proceed by Sept. 7.
Tchao said she had not spoken with selectmen, but she thinks town staff hopes Horton’s ruling will bring the dispute, which the judge called “a lighting rod of contention” in town, to an end.
“I hope there won’t be an appeal,” Tchao said. “I hope that after these issues were fully vetted that we can bring closure to this issue and bring the community back together.”
A ruling in Cumberland County Superior Court Sept. 5 clears the way for Harpswell to tear down the Mitchell Field water tower this month.