Brunswick warily enters border talks with Harpswell

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BRUNSWICK — Members of the public Monday urged the Town Council to “hold firm” and resist Harpswell’s efforts to restore the disputed historic town line.

The comments came during a report on LD 69, An Act To Restore the Historical Boundary Between Harpswell and Brunswick, which is in the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government.

At their last workshop on Feb. 16, committee members instructed the two towns to come up with a compromise and report back to the committee at a later date.

Harpswell presented its version of a compromise at the Augusta workshop. It would restore what the town claims is the historic town boundary on Harpswell Neck and give Harpswell all the mudflats in Middle Bay up to the high water mark, but would grant Brunswick exclusive rights to harvest those mudflats.

A memorandum from Brunswick’s lawyers, Pat Scully and Phil Saucier, indicated that Harpswell’s proposal is possible, but “raises many complicated issues that would have to be resolved and documented before the two Towns could finalize any agreement.”

The memorandum warned, in bold type, that “unless these issues are clearly addressed, and the responsibility or jurisdiction of each Town in each area is clearly identified, the proposed settlement could lead to significant future disputes, litigation and expense.”

Some questions the lawyers raised include which town would tax the intertidal areas, what impact moving the town line would have on property owners, which police department would have authority over the mudflats, and which town’s zoning ordinances would apply.

The number of issues raised by the town’s lawyers led Town Manager Gary Brown to say that “pragmatically, we don’t think (Harpswell’s proposal) makes any sense.”

During the public comment period, residents also expressed concern over how the details of the proposed compromise would be enforced. Amelia Dunbar wondered how two of the town’s boat launches would be affected, and Nancy Pennell was concerned that Harpswell could tax Brunswick residents on a dock or mooring.

The town also appears to be exploring the possibility of resolving the boundary dispute through the courts. Councilor Benet Pols asked if there have been any discussions about “lawyering up,” or, as he explained later, looking for “some sort of court remedy on this, not a legislative one?”

Brown responded, “without trying to tip our hand, yes, we have.” When asked to elaborate on this response, he said, “we are exploring all avenues in order to protect what we think is in Brunswick’s best interest.”

Mark Latti, vice chairman of the town Marine Resources Committee, presented his findings about the effect of the proposed boundary change on the shellfishing community. He said that if Brunswick can no longer harvest the flats, 30 percent of the harvestable clam-flat acreage within the town will be lost, as well as 20 commercial licenses and $2.5 million in shellfish sales.

Latti also said that Brunswick shellfishermen have been doing a lot of conservation work in Middle Bay, and if the mudflats there are transferred to Harpswell their work would be for nothing.

Latti said in an interview that he is skeptical that Harpswell would uphold its promise to give Brunswick control of the flats.

“It’s difficult to say that it would be honored 10 years down the road,” he said. “While this group (of selectmen in Harpswell) might have good intentions, who is to say that a future group would?”

The confusion about the details of the proposal and doubts about whether it would be upheld is exactly why the two towns need to meet, Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said.

“We are trying to create the opportunity where we’re not talking beyond one another, but to one another,” she said.

Councilor Ben Tucker shared similar sentiments at Monday’s meeting.

“We need first to go and meet with them and discuss what their proposal is,” he said. “If we speculate and do hypotheticals, it will never end.”

The council agreed to Harpswell’s proposed meeting date of Tuesday, March 8, at 7 p.m. Councilors also appointed Tucker, Latti and Councilor Suzan Wilson to their negotiation team. Harpswell was expected to choose its representatives on Thursday, March 3, after The Forecaster went to press.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net

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