Election 2015: Dueling development proposals in North Yarmouth

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NORTH YARMOUTH — A two-night series of public hearings last week on the town’s two Village Center Development questions drew mixed reviews from a variety of residents.

The competing questions go to voters Nov. 3. Whether the town should create a public sewer system, and the fate of North Yarmouth Memorial School, are among the issues raised.

Question 1 stems from a recommendation by the Board of Selectmen that the school, closed in June 2014, be redeveloped as a municipal and community campus. The existing Town Hall would be sold for housing or commercial development, while a municipal sewer system would be created to help facilitate new development.

Question 2 is the result of a successful citizen petition opposing the selectmen’s plan.

It calls for the town to cease all spending and work concerning the study or development of a sewer system; for Wescustogo Hall, the community gathering place destroyed by fire in August 2013, to be rebuilt as stipulated in a 1997 agreement with the town; for the current Town Hall to be maintained, and any necessary renovations or additions to be made; for proposals to be sought for the school building and citizen feedback on all of the proposals, and a plan for the school to be sent a town vote.

Sewer system

A hydrogeological study at the 120 Memorial Highway school this summer determined that the existing sewer system could operate at a greater capacity.

Sevee & Maher Engineers of Cumberland Center stated in its Aug. 26 report that:

• The hydraulic capacity at the site for treated wastewater is about 45,000 gallons daily.

• The untreated wastewater capacity is about 7,000 gallons daily.

• In both cases, added wastewater can be disposed of at the site “without having adverse impacts to off-site groundwater, residential water supply wells, or the Yarmouth Water District’s water supply well.”

• Usage of wastewater is better developed in phases, as necessary, to keep project costs at a minimum.

• Long-term maintenance of the leach fields “will likely be limited based on the soils present, but any field that does fail can be replaced within the same footprint.”

A Yarmouth Water District well is about 1,200 feet east of the closest property boundary of the site, according to Sevee & Maher.

The soil conditions, relative to the groundwater depth and level of treatment from the existing system, are “excellent,” according to firm President John Sevee.

But an Oct. 8 letter to the Board of Selectmen from William Reinsborough, chairman of the Water District Board of Trustees, laid out his concerns about a sewer system’s possible impact on the water supply.

Should Question 1 pass, and such a system is developed, “the District does believe that proposed use of the Memorial School property for large scale wastewater treatment and disposal presents a significant risk to the groundwater resource and that there are better alternatives,” Reinsborough wrote.

One key finding by Sevee & Mahar, he added, “was that the existing system provides little in the way of the overall needed capacity of the proposed system. Nearly 90 percent of the site’s wastewater disposal capacity would come from the construction of new leach field beds.”

Reinsborough concluded that a system of such magnitude should be located where a threat to private or public water supplies alike would not exist. He recommended further thought into a connection into Cumberland’s sewer system.

Selectman Mark Girard, a proponent of a town sewer system, wrote in response to Reinsborough: “The financial modeling and site capacity studies have been undertaken to explore the potential long-term impacts and maximum physical capacity of the concepts and do not indicate that we want, or expect those levels (mentioned by Reinsborough) to be realized.”

Girard noted that risks from other contaminants exist “under any and all scenarios, including doing nothing.”

He added that the plan to carry out the project incrementally and with significant monitoring, after much research, “is a testament to our commitment to protect and enhance our communities and our environment.”

Competing viewpoints

Creation of a sewer system and which direction to take with the school were hot topics at forums held Oct. 14-15 at the school.

Linc Merrill, who helped spearhead the Question 2 petition effort, said his group supports retaining the school’s gym for town use, but not the whole building. While flexible about where Wescustogo Hall is rebuilt, he and his fellow Grange Committee members do not accept the school being used as a replacement.

“I am concerned that Question 1 reneges on our 1997 agreement,” Merrill said.

As vice chairman of the Maine State Housing Authority, he said, “Our job is to build housing for the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless. It is not true that you need a municipal sewer district in order to build that housing. It is not true that developers are not interested in the Memorial School.”

Mark Verrill, also involved in the Question 2 campaign, called Question 1 “a loaded question,” noting that its proposers “want to weigh our emotions for North Yarmouth Memorial School against the dangers of starting a public sewer department.”

The Yarmouth Water District recently voted unanimously against the sewer plan, Verrill said.

He added that Question 1 would allow for lot sizes as small as a quarter acre, pointing out, “You have to go to … the city of Portland to see what a quarter-acre lot looks like.”

Among those to speak in favor of Question 1, Katie Murphy of Mountfort Road cautioned against missed opportunities. The secession of Yarmouth from North Yarmouth in 1849, causing the latter town to lose its coastline, was one such lost opportunity, she said.

“We lost a priceless asset,” Murphy noted. “And now we have another asset, and another opportunity. Let’s not let this pass by.”

She called reuse of the school site as a community center and town office “an unbeatable opportunity,” also praising “a responsible plan to sell some acreage [at the current Town Hall site] and create a place for older folks to live, right here in the center of town” and “a modest, safe plan to treat the wastewater.”

Murphy said she would put Sevee & Mahar’s expertise “up against any other engineer or private citizen any anytime.”

Rob Wood of Milliken Road said he was excited about creating a community center at the school, noting that “everybody gets to vote on all the money issues as they come up, in Town Meeting. So (Question 1’s proposal) is not a done deal. This is the beginning of a process.”

Steve Gorden, a North Yarmouth member of the Yarmouth Water District Board of Trustees whose career has included 23 years as director of operations for the Portland Water District, said there was not enough financial information to make a decision about a town sewer system.

“The total system hasn’t been engineered,” he noted. “I would be skeptical if an engineering firm came to me and indicated that this school site, and the use of the existing leach field, is the most environmentally safe and cost-effective location to sewer the village. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Some supported most of the Question 1 proposal, but not the sewer system component, saying they wished it had not been grouped with the proposal’s other ideas.

“I’m personally not really in favor of a sewer; I don’t want subdivisions,” said Dave Holman of Sligo Road. “I think we’re trying to combine a lot of things into one with Question 1 and, frankly, I’d say it’s better than the alternative. Question 2 to me is a disaster. So if you’re really undecided and you’re not sure, vote no on both of them.”

“I’m one of the hundreds and hundreds of school kids who peed and pooped here for many years,” he said. “And hundreds of people can do that at this facility without expanding its (sewer) capacity.”

Holman admitted he is emotionally attached to both the school and Wescustogo Hall, and a desire to maintain the town’s rural character.

“We’re going to have subdivisions in this town in the future; the only question is where we get to put them,” he said. “If we’re going to have them anywhere, I would want them within a stone’s throw of the town center.”

Candy Burgess of Sligo Road agreed that too much had been included in Question 1, and that the different proposals should have been voted on separately. Burgess said she supports keeping the Town Hall property, adding, “I don’t feel that we should destroy the center of our town with housing [on that site]. We have a beautiful center the way it is, and I think it should stay that way.”

Pam Ames of Gray Road said the town has “a huge asset” in retaining the school property for municipal usage.

“We’re surrounded by 66 acres of public works and Cassidy pit,” she said. “We’re surrounded … by 25 acres of a town forest. This 20 acres that NYMS sits on … is the missing piece of the puzzle. That gives the town 111 acres … This parcel is too important to risk on ‘what ifs’ and other scenarios.”

A special information session on Question 1 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the school. A second meeting, on Question 2, follows at the same place and time Tuesday, Oct. 27. Election Day is Nov. 3, with polls open at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 247 Walnut Hill Road, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Question 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot in North Yarmouth supports development of a municipal campus at North Yarmouth Memorial School and a public sewer system. Question 2 opposes the sewer and would keep Town Hall at its current location.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.