BRUNSWICK — After a failed attempt to make property at 946 Mere Point Road a public park, a divided Town Council voted Monday to sell the land.
The 5-4 decision prompted at least one councilor to question the integrity of some of his colleagues.
The council also voted to allocate revenue from the sale to maintaining the town’s other public access points.
Town Manager John Eldridge also announced that the council will have to vote in October on whether to extend METRO Breez bus service to Brunswick.
Monday’s discussion about the Mere Point property contrasted with the atmosphere at the council’s last meeting, where an attorney was accused of “bamboozling” the council and appearing under false pretenses.
Councilor Suzan Wilson attempted to lower the stakes of Monday’s decision by saying whatever the final outcome was, it wouldn’t “be the end of the world” for either side.
But the amount of public interest in the fate of the property – councilors reported receiving an unprecedented 100 or so emails from constituents after tabling the issue Sept. 6 – suggests the outcome matters to the town.
There was no public comment Monday, but members of the public still found a way to make their opinion known: proponents of more public access to water handed out stickers at the entrance of council chambers that read “Share Our Bay.”
Wilson and Councilors David Watson, John Perreault, Alison Harris and Kathy Wilson voted to sell; Councilors Steve Walker, Dan Harris, Jane Millet and Chairwoman Sarah Brayman were opposed.
After the vote, Walker said “I’m a little ashamed to serve on a council where discussion of water access has been coined an annoyance.”
He also pointed out that an online petition in favor of creating access had received nearly 250 signatures, although Perreault said the number was much lower when signatures from non-residents were subtracted.
Walker, the Council’s most vocal advocate for greater public access to the water, initially had hoped the town retain the property and create a stakeholders group that would include abutters, most of whom were adamantly opposed to the idea of a pocket park in their neighborhood. Many of the neighbors were present at the meeting Monday.
Walker also hoped to put the revenue (minus the nearly $65,000 of back taxes owed on the property) toward coastal access sites.
But after his initial motion failed, he floated the idea of putting the decision to a Nov. 8 “advisory referendum vote,” but the idea did not gain traction.
Councilor Alison Harris began deliberations with an appeal for objectivity. In her argument for selling the property, she drew attention to the town’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan, which lists “expanding public access to water” as an objective, although it isn’t ranked as a “key” objective, like education or bicycle and pedestrian safety.
Walker, meanwhile, cited data showing that of Brunswick’s 61 miles of coastline, only 7 miles are not hugged by “hundreds of feet of mud flats,” and most of that is built on private property.
He said the Mere Point property, which falls within those 7 miles, is a rare opportunity for the town to develop a park on property it already owns; for the town to purchase a comparable property would cost “millions,” he said.
“Future generations are going ot consider this a poor decision from this council if the council gives up this opportunity,” he said.
Brayman agreed, saying the council should consider “what kind of town we want to be.”
But most councilors disagreed with the perceived merits of the property. Watson and Kathy Wilson said the embankment leading down to the water is too steep for easy access to the ocean, especially for older residents and the disabled.
Suzan Wilson, a liaison to the marine resources committee, said the best use of the land would be putting it back on the tax rolls.
Councilors will discuss at a later date how the town will sell the property. In addition to putting the revenue toward coastal access, they voted to grant an easement to access a grave site on the parcel, as well as consider a right of way for clammers to access the property’s 380 square feet of shore-front mud flats.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Walker said he was not surprised by Monday’s outcome.
“I think this was an example of old-time Brunswick politics at its worse,” he said. Walker did not name names, but he said a block of councilors had been heavily lobbied to vote against a park since the idea was first proposed.
“When I was elected to District 2,” he continued, “I sought not just to serve the affluent and well-connected, but the people of Brunswick. Unfortunately, after last night, I don’t feel that every councilor feels that is their job.”
In other business Monday, Eldrige said he is talking with Greg Jordan, executive director of the Greater Portland Transit District, about expansion of METRO’s Breez service, which runs buses from Portland to Freeport, with stops in Falmouth and Yarmouth.
Eldridge said the town considered expanding METRO service to Brunswick in 2014, but deemed it too costly. He said that he has yet to finalize the Breez details, but the grant-supported expansion for a two-year pilot would likely cost the town $110,000.
Because of a looming October grant application deadline to the Department of Transportation, the council will have to decide whether to authorize the spending in the coming weeks.
The overgrown property at 946 Mere Point Road, which the Brunswick Town Council decided to sell on Monday, Sept. 19.
Proponents of creating public access to the ocean distributed stickers that read “Share Our Bay!” before Monday’s Brunswick Town Council meeting.
Edited to clarify Suzan Wilson’s relationship to the marine resources committee.