Brunswick residents sue to compel vote on Mere Point park

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BRUNSWICK — A group of residents is suing the town after unsuccessfully petitioning the Town Council to create a park at 946 Mere Point Road.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland claims councilors failed to follow the Town Charter, which obligates them to send the decision to referendum.

The council voted 7-2 to dismiss the petition Feb. 6, with many councilors citing the town attorney’s opinion that petitioners failed to follow a legal mechanism in the charter.

The lawsuit surprised councilors, who were unaware of it before petitioner Robert Baskett notified them during the public comment period of the Feb. 21 council meeting. Baskett also handed Town Manager John Eldridge a copy of the lawsuit. 

The news, however, did not stop the council from authorizing terms of the sale of the property, which they voted 5-4 to sell last September.

Attorney David Lourie filed the complaint on behalf of the nonprofit Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government.

Petitioner Sockna Dice on Wednesday said the group raised funds for initial legal fees in one day last week.

“Now we feel it’s not just an issue of the park, but the council stonewalling citizen input,” she said.

The court filing argues the petition followed a legal path defined in the charter, and that a decision for or against a park satisfies the definition of a “police power” ordinance. Therefore, it argues, the council had a legal obligation to enact the ordinance or send it to referendum.

The complaint also alleges council prejudice against the petition.

“The majority of the Town Council was prejudiced against the proposed ordinance, taking offense at the effort to effectively overrule the Town Council’s order to sell the Mere Point property, although the Town Council never considered or voted on any motion to make the property at 946 Mere Point Road a park,” the filing states.

Town attorney Stephen Langsdorf disagreed with the record of events and the argument.

After reviewing the filing Wednesday, Langsdorf said the content omits “essential facts” and parts of the record, and “doesn’t highlight the provisions of the charter” that lack a channel for citizen petitions to overturn council executive actions.

It does not mention, for example, that the petitions were issued with a warning from Langsdorf that the council would not be legally obligated to respond.

“That’s an important fact that they did not identify,” he said.

The record matters, Langsdorf said, because a judge will ultimately review the history to determine whether the council acted improperly.

Neither Council Chairwoman Alison Harris nor Town Manager John Eldridge said they could respond to the petition Tuesday, and were openly perplexed as to why they were not notified in advance of the meeting.

“I’m not surprised by the substance, I’m surprised by how they went about it,” Harris said, referring to the petitioners’ prior threat to pursue legal action.

Dice the group deliberately decided not to tell anyone about the lawsuit until Tuesday’s meeting. She said they were concerned the council would bring its lawyer and create a “proxy court of law” during the meeting.

“We didn’t mean to be disrespectful of the council, we just thought it would be pointless,” she said.

Eldridge, meanwhile, advised councilors that “until there any actions from the court, the council can proceed.”

The lawsuit does not seek to stay council action, although the document requests a stipulation that the town notify any potential buyer of the property that it is the subject of a court case.

Langsdorf said he will object to that stipulation.

“The statute talks about what you do when a case involves title to real estate,” he said. “And there’s nothing about this case that involves a title.”

“There’s nothing about this lawsuit that prevents the Town Council from moving forward with the sale,” he said.

Councilors authorized allowing the town manager to oversee the sale. The council must approve the listing and sale price.

A motion by Councilor Sarah Brayman for the town to retain a 25-foot strip of land on the south side of the property to create access for shellfish harvesters failed 4-4, with Councilor Dan Harris absent.

The council also decided against placing an easement for clammers on the property.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A group of residents is suing the town of Brunswick after the Town Council dismissed a petition to turn the property at 946 Mere Point Road, pictured here from the water, into a park.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or
  • farmertom2

    It’s pretty stupid that it’s come to this, but it was stupid in the first place for the council not to recognize that they should either have kept the land for the town, or else if there was doubt about the course of action to follow, given significant interest, to put the matter to vote.

  • Chew H Bird

    Filing suit is not appropriate, in my opinion. The Town Council has “stonewalled”, minimized, or otherwise ignored the citizenship of the town for decades. While I do believe this should have gone to a vote, burdening the town with legal costs to defend it’s position is a very bad idea. I would rather see this group working to assist the town with creating a mechanism to avoid this type of situation in the future.

    After reading about the Cedar Beach “cluster” and the costs associated with it, my expectations are that Brunswick residents are better served by positive action than by bitter dispute.

    • Constant

      Hey, wait a minute! Aren’t you the same Bird who posted this on the BDN?
      “It is a tiny parcel of land, with steep banks to the mudflats (tidal). Half a mile away is a multi million dollar boat launch facility with picnic tables, parking, and portable rest rooms. To maintain this small parcel of gravel with poor access to the tidal mudflats makes absolutely zero sense. The town should sell the land and pocket the tax revenue to help support the existing facilities.”
      So, which is it? Are you lying here, or there? Your attempt to sound reasonable sure didn’t pan out on the BDN site! You never supported sending this out to the public, by your own words!

      • Chew H Bird

        If 1,100 signatures are presented to the Town Council in protest of a decision, the Council should recognize a problem and implement a plan to take under consideration an appropriate form of action. While I strongly disagree with the practical and economic issues associated with this particular piece of property, I do believe that 1,100 signatures on a petition should count for something.

        A lawsuit is ridiculous and will simply waste taxpayer money.

        • Constant

          It looks as if the local Board is not going to follow the rules without a lawsuit. I’d direct your concern about wasting money to the local Board, instead of blaming the citizens trying to access their rights. They could simply send it out to a vote, which it seems they should have done anyway, and save the taxpayer money. It’s on them, isn’t it?

          • Chew H Bird

            Apparently there is no mechanism in place in the town rule book for citizens to overturn or put out for a vote a Council decision in this type of matter.

            The Counsil usually fails to proactively correct problems on their own, unless it is at the request of an ongoing special interest group issue.

            In my opinion, this group would have more success enhancing the (almost 20) public waterfront access areas and working on ways to support those areas rather than tie up town resources (money, lawyers, and time). if they truly want to create ways for more people to have access to our natural resources.

          • Constant

            You are opposed to the site. I believe there is no path to enhancing the other sites, it’s just a false option put out by a town where the Mere Point group seems more important than regular people. Good luck.

          • Chew H Bird

            Just because I am opposed to the site for common sense reasons, does not mean that our town should ignore a petition with 1,100 valid signatures.

            I had “no opinion” on the large boat launch facility because despite the lack of transparency and forcing it down the throats of Mere Point residents, it would be good for the community. There were some actions by counsilors at that time that were ethically horrifying, but all worked out in the end.

            I simply see no reason for another (limited) facility in the same neighborhood, against the wishes of the neighbors (again), in such a short time frame when our town is hard up for money and has significant educational expenses coming up, plus significant fire department expenses…