Editorial: Where we stand

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Voters in several towns will go to the polls June 14 to elect municipal officials, accept or reject school budgets and decide the fate of referendum questions. Here’s where the owners of The Forecaster stand on some of the more interesting propositions.

Falmouth

Falmouth’s recent history is marked by decisions on several divisive issues: school consolidation, a town pool and establishment of an ice arena. But none have been as polarizing as the debate over this year’s Question 1.

The so-called “town center” question would use a combination of town and private funds to renovate the Plummer/Motz and Lunt schools property for a new library and community center. It took a 4-3 vote by the Town Council to put the question on the ballot, and it wouldn’t surprise us if the margin in the popular vote next week is equally narrow.

Most of the interest, and opposition, to Question 1 centers around the proposed move of Falmouth Memorial Library from 5 Lunt Road to the school property.

On its face, it seems like much ado about nothing: few people argue that the library could use more short-term space and parking, and after all, proponents are only talking about using $1.5 million from the town’s undesignated funds. The remainder of the $5.65 million would come from the sale of property and library fundraising. There would be no new taxes levied and a nearly five-year window for library trustees to raise their share of the cost.

But that’s where the plan gets squishy.

There is widespread disagreement over whether the library’s long-term needs justify the new space. Even a consultant hired by the trustees was reluctant to estimate space needs more than five years down the road.

Proponents say they’ve accounted for the costs of renovations and future operations. The project’s budget of about $89 per square foot is already on the high side. But until a contractor actually starts digging behind the walls and under the floors of the old school buildings – and, perhaps, discovers asbestos-coated pipes, mold, rot or other surprises – it will be hard for anyone to accurately predict how much it will cost to prepare the buildings for new use; costs of $100 per square foot or more aren’t unusual for buildings of this vintage.

And that 4 1/2-year window for library fundraising? Does anyone want to guess what will happen to construction costs over the next five years? Unless the economy is even worse than it is today (and that’s a scary thought), you can assume the price will be going up.

Proceeds from the sale of town property are another unknown. The Pleasant Hill Fire station sold for less than expected, which puts a dent in the project arithmetic before it even goes to the polls.

As for creation of a “town center,” Falmouth already has one: east of Interstate 295, west of Route 1, centered roughly around – the existing library. We’d rather see town officials and library trustees get more creative about expanding and improving the existing space, and continuing the emphasis on the Route 1 commercial district, than trying to manufacture a town center on the wrong side of the highway.

And it’s almost guaranteed that taxes overall are likely to increase, while state and federal aid to the town for things like education and road maintenance will be declining. Does Falmouth want to gamble that town taxes and operating costs won’t rise even more if this project comes to fruition?

It’s a scenario that leaves us believing, despite the library’s short-term needs and the emotional attachment some people have to the town’s old school buildings, that at this time, in this economic environment, this project is a gamble that Falmouth does not need and cannot afford.

We urge a vote of no on Question 1.

On the other hand, we support Question 3. The up to $1.2 million that would be borrowed for a wood-chip boiler at Falmouth Middle School is an investment that should pay off in future savings, not higher costs.

Cumberland & North Yarmouth

Residents of Cumberland forced the referendum that would ban gravel pits and water extraction operations in the town’s major residential zones. Opponents have suggested a vote in favor of Question 1 is a sign that the town, to borrow an over-used phrase, is not “open for business.”

We disagree with the opponents. Cumberland has made it plainly clear in the last few years that it is interested in managed, sensible business growth. Gravel pits in residential neighborhoods don’t fit that description, and shouldn’t be allowed.

We also support the referendum in Cumberland and North Yarmouth to close the Drowne Road School and turn it over to the town of Cumberland, which may reuse the building for senior housing. With school enrollments changing, and the population growing older, it’s a plan that makes sense.

Freeport

Voters in the Regional School Unit 5 towns (Freeport, Pownal and Durham) are being asked to borrow $2.9 million for improvements to athletic facilities at the high school. It’s a lot of money, but it addresses a big problem.

Freeport’s high school athletic facilities have a reputation throughout the region – and it’s not good. This money will be well spent; the students deserve safer, more competitive facilities, and a private fundraising group led by Joan Benoit Samuelson and TD Bank’s Larry Wold promises to bring in significant outside support that will defray some of the borrowing.

We urge Freeport voters (and those in Pownal and Durham) to approve the bond.

Harpswell

There are three special questions on the Harpswell ballot: one would initiate the process that could ultimately lead to the town’s withdrawal from School Administrative District 75, another would authorize $2,400 for an environmental assessment of West Harpswell School and the third would rezone the shoreline on Eagle Island.

We support all three questions.

Harpswell’s relationship with SAD 75 isn’t the best, following the recent battle over the closing of West Harpswell School. We’re not advocating withdrawal from SAD 75, but we believe residents deserve all the facts available before they face that decision. This question will get the fact-finding started.

In the same vein, it makes sense to assess West Harpswell School. Voters decided to close it and now must decide if they want to keep the building. The environmental study will help the town make an informed decision.

Finally, rezoning on Eagle Island will allow construction of a visitors center on the shoreline, which in turn will help return space in the Adm. Peary home to its original use. It will improve this historic landmark and deserves support.

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