Falmouth council moves toward single question on community center, library proposals

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FALMOUTH — A June referendum question asking voters if they support moving the library to the Lunt School building and creating a community center at the Motz School, at a “net-zero” tax impact, moved closer to approval Monday night.

After a presentation of a new cost analysis and projections by Town Councilor Will Armitage, and lengthy discussion about the exact language of the referendum, councilors said they would vote on the question at their next meeting.

“What I was trying to get at here was what would it take to make this revenue neutral? What I was pleased to see is that you can get there,” Armitage said.

The project, which has been the subject of debate for months, would include selling the existing Falmouth Memorial Library building, 10 acres behind the school buildings and the Pleasant Hill fire station to offset construction costs.

It also includes using $1.5 million from the town’s undesignated fund balance and requires the library board of trustees to raise $1.25 million.

Initial proposals to use a potential lease of the Plummer School building to offset that building’s improvements will not be included in the question, however, a cap of $1.5 million on improvements to the Plummer building, contingent on a lease with a tenant, has been proposed.

“You could get by without putting a lot of money into (Plummer),” Town Manager Nathan Poore said.

He estimated that the cost to maintain the Plummer building until a tenant could be found would be low, including only repairs to the boiler and roof, and that once a deal with a tenant is arranged, the town could move forward with the necessary renovations.

Earlier proposals to move or improve Town Hall were not included.

Several residents spoke during the public hearing, some in favor of the referendum, others opposed.

Lisa Preney asked the council to consider the recent closure of a local bookstore, Books, Etc., and the financial trouble of national bookstore Border’s, when it considered the future needs of the library.

“Wait five years and see what e-readers and less hardcover books will mean for library space,” she said, suggesting that the library could be expanded on-site temporarily to deal with immediate space needs.

Chantal Walker, president of the library trustees, took issue with Preney’s reference to bookstores.

“Places like Border’s are going bankrupt, but that business model is completely different,” she said. “Their model use goes down in recession, ours goes up.”

Other speakers were in favor of sending the whole community center issue to referendum.

“We have the opportunity, in a democratic way, to determine if these buildings are a benefit to the community,” Fred Leighton said. “All sides will have the opportunity to weigh in.”

The council will vote on the referendum language at its meeting on March 14.

Legislators visit

Before Monday’s meeting, councilors, School Board members, and town officials met with the town’s three state legislators, Sen. Dick Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, and Reps. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, and Mark Dion, D-Portland, to discuss upcoming legislation and the budget.

Nelson said the Legislature would consider approximately 2,000 bills this session, but that some had jumped out as particularly important to school departments and municipalities.

“The money that has been put back into (General Purpose Aid) will help, but it will not make you whole,” Nelson said.

She added that cuts to state revenue sharing, as well as reduced funding for general assistance and Maine Care, would also affect the amount municipalities could rely on receiving from the state.

Poore brought up LD 493, a bill that would allow municipalities to maintain their own street lights.

He explained that the issue became clear when the town was looking into eliminating street lights to save money, but found that any change to any light, including changing to more efficient bulbs, requires a new 15-year contract with Central Maine Power Co..

“We could go with (light-emitting diode bulbs) right now, but the payback isn’t there,” Poore said.

Several councilors asked the legislators to remember that cuts to services such as heating assistance and Maine Care funding trickle down and directly affect the municipalities.

“The municipalities can’t afford to have it all come down on us,” Armitage said.

Discussion heated up when Councilor Bonny Rodden brought up the proposed repeal of the Informed Growth Act, which requires large retail stores to do a study with the State Planning Office to evaluate the effect of the store in that area.

Rodden said Walmart’s possible expansion beyond 75,000 square feet in Falmouth would trigger the Informed Growth Act, which would force traffic and impact studies to be done before the store can be expanded.

Council Chairman Tony Payne said the law should be clearer, calling the current policies “soft and squishy.”

“If we don’t want 75,000 square foot buildings on Route 1, we, as a community, should decide that,” Armitage added.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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