BRUNSWICK — The Town Council put off a vote Monday on an ordinance that would ban single-use plastic bags at local retailers.
Councilors later approved funding for a $2 million stormwater drain reconstruction project this year on Union Street and Mill Street, and formed a task force to explore the future of the town’s fire and rescue services, including a new central station.
The proposed ban – which departed from the Recycling and Sustainability’s recommendation to place a 5-cent fee on single-use paper and plastic bags for retail grocers – drew mixed feedback during a packed public hearing.
The hearing followed a series of public forums, where business owners said they were concerned the ban would disproportionately hurt small retailers, according to Parks and Facilities Manager Jay Astle.
Speakers pointed out that paper bags cost more and take up more storage space. They also said the ordinance would infringe on a business’ right to decide its own practices, according to Astle’s meeting notes.
“I’ve been educated through this process, and I think we should spend more time educating,” Tina Libby, co-owner of Libby’s Market, said Monday. She said she favors a fee over an outright ban.
Helene Harrower, owner of Paul’s Marina restaurant, said her opposition to the ban didn’t mean she opposes the environment, but is against an ordinance “written in haste because some of our neighboring towns are doing it.”
Echoing Libby, she called for better public education around reusable bags instead of a ban.
Bring Your Own Bag’s Marcia Harrington countered Harrower and Libby’s call for more education, saying her group has been campaigning to encourage reusable bags for two years.
“You’d have to be sleeping to not know this is out there,” she said.
The council itself was hardly unified on Monday. Although councilors agree the town should reduce the number of environmentally harmful bags, they dispute the pace of the process.
Councilor Jane Millett asked councilors to reconsider a fee-based penalty instead of a ban, calling it an approach that would modify consumer behavior.
“My attitude has changed,” Councilor John Perreault added.
He said he initially favored the ban, but now supports the 5-cent fee, explaining he changed his mind when he found out reusable bags provided by Bring Your Own Bag are made in China.
Councilor Steve Walker also indicated he would shift his support for the ban to a fee model – if those fees go toward creating more recycling bins in town.
Ultimately, Vice Chairwoman Kathy Wilson underscored the council’s unanimous support to at least do something. She noted councilors voted 8-1 in December to move the ordinance forward, with Councilor Sarah Brayman withholding her support because she wanted an additional fee on paper bags.
Whether it’s a ban or a fee, Wilson said Monday, “We all have to get on the boat here and do our part.”
But Wilson’s motion to suspend council rules and vote on the measure failed 5-4; a motion to suspend a rule that prevents the subject of a public hearing from being decided the same day needs six votes to pass.
The motion failed because councilors wanted to keep the public comment period open until the end of the week, not necessarily because the ordinance lacked support.
Construction on Union Street and Mill Street will begin this summer, as the town rebuilds an old, undersized drainage system that has caused flooding for years.
Residents can expect road closures throughout the summer and fall, according to Public Works Director John Foster, who said the project will wrap up by June 30, 2018.
Excavation will start on Union Street, a block before it intersects Pleasant Street, and go down Mill Street before terminating in the Androscoggin River off Water Street.
The $2.1 million needed to finance the project will come from grants, road construction fund reserves, and tax increment financing revenues.
The town will also share costs of digging up the roads with the water and sewer districts, which will simultaneously update their lines. Foster said Tuesday the coordination and combined bid reduces costs and minimizes the amount of road work.
Chairwoman Alison Harris appointed Councilors David Watson, Suzan Wilson and Millett to a task force charged with exploring options for a new central fire station.
At the urging of Councilor Sarah Brayman, the panel will also explore regionalizing fire and rescue services – an option, she noted, that doesn’t necessarily mean Brunswick would forego its own central station.
Regionalization would likely involve a primary partnership with Topsham’s volunteer department, located just 1.6 miles over the river from Brunswick’s central station.
Tina Libby, co-owner of Libby’s Market in Brunswick, speaks against a proposed ordinance Monday that would ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores.