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Harpswell, Brunswick air border dispute for legislators

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Harpswell, Brunswick air border dispute for legislators

AUGUSTA — After nearly a year of building their case to reverse a 1998 border resolution with Brunswick, proponents of Harpswell's Carrying Place Assembly finally had the chance to present their argument to a legislative committee Wednesday.

Nearly half of the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee was absent, including Co-Chairwoman Sen. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn. Nonetheless, during a two-hour public hearing that included maps, documents and clam leases dating back to 1738, the Carrying Place Assembly urged the committee to reverse a 1998 agreement between the towns that was ratified by the Legislature.

It remains to be seen if their argument was compelling enough for the committee to endorse LD 1410, a bill that could lead to re-establishing a border drawn when America was still a British colony. Nonetheless, the Harpswell contingent had strength in numbers and supporting documents. At least seven supporters spoke on the bill's behalf, while several others submitted written testimony arguing that the 1998 agreement was incorrectly endorsed by residents in both communities.

At issue are hundreds of acres of intertidal land and up to 40 acres of upland near Route 123. Proponents of the bill argue that Harpswell residents endorsed the 1998 agreement because they didn't know about the 1738 boundary. They claim the 1998 compromise incorrectly stripped Harpswell of land and shellfish harvesting areas.

"I don't think there's a snowball's chance in Hades ... residents would've voted in favor of the agreement if they knew Harpswell would be surrendering land," John Lloyd told the committee.  

Brunswick, meanwhile, has contended that the 1998 agreement was made in good faith and should be honored. The Town Council recently spurned an overture by the Harpswell Board of Selectmen to discuss the issue, instead voting unanimously to send a letter to its legislative delegation supporting the 1998 decision.

On Monday, only Town Council Chairwoman Hallie Daughtry and Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, testified against the bill. During her testimony, Daughtry remarked that she wished Brunswick had brought "more reinforcements."

Priest argued that the 1998 agreement was essentially a legal settlement, and that the only way to reverse it was to show fraud or that one of the two parties validated the compromise under duress.

Both towns consulted legal counsel at the time of the agreement because they were involved in a lawsuit. Harpswell sued Brunswick over the border in 1996, following what is locally known as the "clam wars." That dispute centered on clam harvesting battles between Brunswick and Harpswell shellfishermen on Middle Bay flats. Both sides claimed the other was digging illegally.

The the towns once co-managed the nearly 200 acres of flats, but Harpswell withdrew, claiming Brunswick clammers weren't doing conservation duties required for licensing. 

Some members of the Carrying Place Assembly contend that their evidence is not new, and that it was suppressed or ignored by both town's negotiators so they could settle a dispute both sides said was rapidly accumulating legal costs.

Sam Alexander, of the Carrying Place Assembly, added that the 1998 border was negotiated by one Brunswick councilor and one Harpswell selectman.

"The status quo is not acceptable," Alexander said, "not when all the evidence is not known or heard." 

Rep. William Browne, R-Vassalboro, wondered why the group waited more than 10 years to raise the issue again.

Members of the Carrying Place Assembly said they wanted to revisit the border because of Harpswell's 250th anniversary.

But Browne wasn't convinced.

"It seems to me that there has to be a financial reason for this," he said.

Priest noted that Brunswick has a $1 million clam industry, leading Rep. David Cotta, R-China, to say that much more was at stake than a historical boundary.

Gordon Weil, a former Harpswell selectmen who negotiated the 1998 agreement, said he was neither for nor against the bill. But he defended the 1998 compromise.

Weil said he was mindful of the 1738 boundary, but was advised by attorney Ralph Lancaster that winning that case would be costly and uncertain because of historical data supporting a boundary drawn in 1758.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on the issue on May 13. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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