CAPE ELIZABETH — A divided Town Council on Monday decided to begin vacating paper streets at Trundy Point and Two Lights.
The unexpected move was described as a “slap in the face” to the Conservation Commission, which has recommended the town maintain its rights to the streets, with an eye toward possible creation of public trails.
In other business, a public hearing was also scheduled for Aug. 14 regarding the Ordinance Committee’s proposal to prohibit retail marijuana establishments and social clubs.
Paper streets are roads that were laid out in subdivisions, but never constructed or accepted by the town. In 1997 the state extended the town’s rights over paper streets by 20 years, to be re-evaluated this year.
Councilors on June 22, 2016 reviewed some of the town’s 55 paper streets and discussed whether to accept them as trails or public ways, extend their status as paper streets for another 20 years, or to vacate the streets. No final decisions were made in the workshop.
During an Oct. 5, 2016 meeting, councilors asked the Conservation Commission to assess the “technical and logistical feasibility” of installing trails on Surfside Avenue, Atlantic Place, and Lighthouse Point Road. A technical assessment was conducted by Town Engineer Steve Harding and Sebago Technics.
After reviewing the assessment, the Conservation Commission reaffirmed the recommendations of the 2013 Greenbelt Plan, which the council adopted in January 2014.
The commission accepted the report, but had no interest in putting in a trail on Lighthouse Road, Surfside Avenue, or Atlantic Place. It would support trails in the future, as long as the town committed to the Greenbelt Plan.
“We do strongly urge that the town maintain its rights to the paper streets because the work of the Conservation Committee and the town in general is a long game,” Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Tasse said during Monday night’s meeting. “Down the road, conditions may change and it may be appropriate to reconsider putting the trail(s) in.”
Following Tasse and the commission’s recommendation, residents of neighborhoods surrounding the papers streets expressed concerns about increased traffic and decreased quality of life if trails were developed.
Others countered that these trails should be accessible to the public and residents “were always aware” of the possible risks that came with buying properties abutting paper streets.
The recommended action to be taken by the council, as listed on the meeting agenda, was to acknowledge the receipt of the assessment.
But that changed when Councilor Caitlin Jordan thanked the Conservation Committee for its work, acknowledging receipt of its report, but moved to vacate the paper streets altogether.
Councilor Patricia Grennon seconded the motion, which passed 4-3. Councilors Sara Lennon and Penelope Jordan also were in favor of vacating the properties.
Councilor Jessica Sullivan opposed the motion. She said the first step the council should take would be setting a workshop date to review the technical assessment report.
“I am quite surprised at the attempt of the council,” Sullivan said. “All of the sudden we are starting the process to vacate (the paper streets). We haven’t even, as a council, reviewed the report.”
Town Manager Matthew Sturgis stressed that Jordan’s motion wasn’t to vacate the streets tonight, but to begin the process.
“I am left to wonder what kinds of meetings and discussions have been taking place that I am completely unaware of,” Sullivan said. Councilor Katharine Ray also said she had “missed something.”
“We are not allowed to talk about (agenda items) ahead of time and I’m just stating for the record that we did not,” Grennon said.
According to Jordan, when the council voted to maintain the town’s rights to the paper streets in October 2016, she asked and was granted clarification that the council could opt to vacate the paper streets at any time.
“The only way to move this train along was to extend the rights, as they were going to expire,” she said.
“We owe everyone in (these) neighborhood(s) a decision,” Lennon said. “For me, the issue never was the feasibility of the paths … (but) a much bigger and broader issue about an aggressive diminish(ing) of individuals’ fundamental right to enjoy their property.”
Sullivan, Ray, and Chairman James Garvin were in the minority, opposing Jordan’s motion.
“I was not expecting this to be the way this went tonight,” Garvin said. “I know that if I were on the Conservation Committee and this was the action the council took tonight, I would personally perceive it as a slap in the face. … I just don’t feel like we are across the finish line on this process.”
Sturgis said that between now and August he plans on researching the process and statutory requirements for the vacation of paper streets and will present that research to the Town Council.