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Lawmakers reject Harpswell border claim

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Lawmakers reject Harpswell border claim

AUGUSTA — A bill that would redraw a portion of the Harpswell's boundary with Brunswick suffered a major setback Wednesday when the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee voted 10-3 against the measure.

The bill had been advanced by a Harpswell group known as the Carrying Place Assembly, which contends that a 1998 agreement between the towns was based on erroneous information. Last week the group presented its case to the committee during a public hearing, arguing that the correct border – a line established in 1738 – should be re-established.

But committee majority, including five lawmakers who were not present for the May 6 public hearing, was unmoved by the group's arguments.

"I would much rather have Harpswell and Brunswick settle this," said Rep. William Browne, R-Vassalboro. "I see no reason why we can or should return this to the Legislature."

If passed, the bill would effectively reverse the Legislature's ratification of the 1998 agreement.

While the committee's vote doesn't kill the legislation, it significantly hampers its chances of going any further. The Senate and  House chairman and chairwoman of the committee voted with the majority, and they are the only members who can recommend the minority report of the committee's three dissenting legislators.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, can still try to advance the legislation, but it faces an uphill battle without support from either the committee leaders or the majority.

Members of the Carrying Place Assembly were upset by the committee's decision. Several complained that the legislators didn't fully evaluate the evidence. Amy Haible, a former Harpswell selectman, accused Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, of not supporting the group's effort or fully hearing their case.

Gerzofsky's district includes Harpswell and Brunswick. 

After the meeting in the State House's Cross Building, Haible and Gerzofsky had a heated argument in the hallway outside the committee room. Haible accused Gerzofsky of "counting votes" and not responding to the group's request to meet.

Asked to respond to the accusations, Gerzofsky said his obligation to both towns was to make sure the bill had "an honest and fair hearing".

"I got my votes through all four communities in my district," he said. "It has nothing to do with counting votes. I take every issue my constituents bring seriously."

Gerzofsky added that he didn't endorse the legislation because he saw no evidence of fraud or duress, which he said, were required to overturn the 1998 agreement. He added that while Harpswell residents voted to pursue the bill, they also refused to fund the effort.

Gerzofsky also refuted claims that he'd worked behind the scenes to kill the bill.

"The committee didn't agree with (the Carrying Place's) case, overwhelmingly," he said. "There were a lot of Republicans on there that didn't agree. And I haven't met a lot of Republicans who pay much attention to what I have to say." 

Meanwhile, Carrying Place's John Lloyd wasn't convinced the committee fully considered the new evidence. He said that the bill's timing, late in the legislative session, also made it less likely the committee would take the necessary time to review all the information.

"They're politicians," Lloyd said. "They don't have as much of a stake in the outcome as we do."

The disputed border is on Harpswell's northern edge along Route 123. It includes about 40 acres of upland and hundreds of acres of an intertidal flats on Middlebay. The intertidal area is of particular interest to area clam harvesters. In the 1990s a dispute known as the "Clam Wars" erupted over the area, leading Harpswell to break off its co-management agreement with Brunswick. Shortly thereafter, Harpswell sued Brunswick over the border.   

On Wednesday, the Harpswell group presented new documents unearthed at the Massachusetts Archives apparently confirming that clamming licenses from the disputed territory were from Harpswell, not Brunswick.

The 1738 border was drawn when Maine was still a Massachusetts territory.  

Three committee members were prepared to consider the evidence. Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, said the committee should hold the bill over for the next session of the Legislature. Boland said that although Brunswick and Harpswell had attorneys advising them to sign the 1998 agreement, it was possible neither counsel had seen the new evidence.

Boland's argument was backed by Rep. Teresa Hayes, D-Buckfield, and Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill.

However, committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Simpson, D-Auburn, argued Harpswell's counsel should have discovered the evidence in 1998. She said the committee could become mired in the dispute each time new evidence is uncovered.

"We can do this over and over," Simpson said.

While the Harpswell group was upset with the decision, Brunswick officials were pleased the 1998 agreement was upheld.

Brunswick Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux said carrying the bill over to the next session would have created problems for marine wardens patrolling the area. Devereaux said ongoing discussions over the border could raise reasonable doubt and endanger prosecutions of any arrest or summons issued on the disputed flats.

"They don't think about that kind of stuff up here," Devereaux said. "But for those of us out there patrolling, it's a big deal."

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

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