Court temporarily halts Harpswell water tower demolition

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HARPSWELL — A judge put the town’s plan to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower on hold until he can hear arguments later this month on whether the plan should be reconsidered.

The Friends of Mitchell Field on July 25 filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, challenging the demolition plan and the Board of Selectmen’s rejection of a request for a special Town Meeting to reconsider the demolition.

The Friends suit seeks a preliminary injunction that would prevent the town from demolishing the tower until a full hearing on the matter could be held. Town attorney Amy Tchao and Friends’ attorney Chris Neagle of Troubh Heisler in Portland will argue their cases on the preliminary injunction Aug. 28.

Tchao said July 31 it will be up to the Friends to prove that they will suffer “irreparable harm” if the tower is demolished. If the group is unable to show harm and its motion is denied, Tchao said the contract for the demolition would move forward as scheduled.

Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton on July 26 also denied the Friends’ request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the town from signing a contract to demolish the structure. He said the request was denied because the group did not prove at the expedited hearing that the harm to their group would outweigh the harm done to the town if it was unable to sign a demolition contract last Thursday.

Selectmen voted unanimously that night to hire Michigan-based Iseler Demolition for the project.

In the complaint filed last week, the Friends argue Harpswell selectmen have “obstructed their efforts” to preserve the Mitchell Field water tower “in a variety of ways,” including by “preventing them from presenting information materials” at Town Meeting in March, when demolition of the tower was approved.

The group also argues the town thwarted its efforts again in May when selectmen rejected a 351-signature petition submitted by the Friends asking for a re-vote on the water tower.

According to court documents, the town denies the Friends were prevented from presenting anything at Town Meeting. The town also argues the Friends did not comply with state statutes in its call for a special Town Meeting.

Horton’s order says the participation of town officials is “essential” to a valid public hearing and secret-ballot vote, and the court is not prepared to order the town to cooperate with a process the town considers “not lawfully initiated.”

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told selectmen July 26 that because Horton’s order states the demolition may not occur until after Sept. 1, some language in the contract with Iseler was adjusted to reflect that.

She said Scott Iseler, vice president of the demolition company, has signed off on the latest version of the contract.

If the court grants the injunction, Tchao said she would be “clarifying with the court what the next steps would be,” but presumably the town would be prevented from demolishing the tower until the case could go to trial.

Neagle said he had “no comment” on the lawsuit via email last week, and asked The Forecaster to stop contacting him.

Tchao said a special meeting of the Board of Selectmen would be held in executive session Thursday, Aug. 2, to discuss the court case.

She also said the town does not think the Friends group will be able to meet the standards of the preliminary injunction hearing later this month.

“The town did have an open Town Meeting where the Friends were able to discuss and present their arguments and their proposal for over an hour,” she said, referring to Town Meeting in March. “So they may be making arguments that they weren’t allowed to make their case, (but) we don’t think the evidence would support that claim.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.