Freeport wrestles with natural gas strategy

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FREEPORT — The Town Council reached consensus Tuesday to move forward with a request for proposals from Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas to expand the availability of gas service throughout Freeport.

The RFP, written by the town’s Natural Gas Task Force, solicits information about the geographical reach, saturation level, time line and pricing the companies can offer.

The concept of an RFP suggests the town can simply compare two offers and choose the one that best serves its budget and citizenry.

But it isn’t that simple.

“What happens if in the middle of the RFP process, which we’re all participating in in good faith, one of these companies drops in an application for a street opening permit?” asked Edward Bradley, who represents District 2 on the task force. Bradley called the RFP “an exercise in fiction.”

Neither company must sign an agreement with the town in order to file (and receive) a permit to open a road and install a pipeline. Maine Natural Gas approached the YMCA on Old South Freeport Road, which uses huge amounts of oil to heat its pool, with a contract in the last month.

The YMCA, which has not signed the contract, represents the town’s most attractive remaining asset to natural gas suppliers. (Maine Natural Gas has been heating L.L. Bean since 2010; at a January workshop, councilors agreed the town should have tried to leverage greater connectivity across Freeport when Maine Natural Gas and L.L. Bean were courting each other.)

To give Freeport greater negotiating heft, the task force suggested instating a moratorium on natural gas installation while the town modifies its street opening ordinance to limit access to the company with the stronger proposal.

“If we’re not going to have any authority to pick, what has this process been all about?” Bradley asked. “We’ve been at this for eight months, nine months, to what end?”

Joseph Migliaccio, who represents District 3 on the task force, said, “It gives the gas companies a little bit of a message that we’re really serious about this. They may respond with a more beneficial proposal and it shouldn’t be a very long time. You’ll be able to make a decision relatively quickly if you can get them to put their cards on the table. … I think it adds some teeth to this.”

Councilors questioned the legal, ethical and logistical implications of the strategy.

“It almost sounds like shady pool,” said Council Chairman Jim Hendicks, who questioned whether the town would then have to heighten restrictions on public utilities more generally. “It just doesn’t feel right to me.”

After the workshop, Councilor Rich Degrandpre said, “It seems that only one person would be prohibited from digging in our roads. And that seems a little bit specialized for a community to make that decision. … I’m concerned that in the future we’ll make it difficult for both (companies) and then we’ll have neither.”

Hendricks ultimately said the council would ask the town’s lawyer to weigh in on the moratorium and ordinance approach.

Active Living Plan

The council also met with the Active Living Task Force and discussed a draft of the group’s Active Living Plan.

The task force was formed in 2012 and charged with assessing the town’s walking, biking and hiking infrastructure. The plan identifies eight nodes of physical activity: Downtown Freeport, Hedgehog Mountain/Pownal and the Hunter Road recreational fields, the North Freeport recreational area, the East Freeport trails, Wolfe’s Neck Farm and State Park, South Freeport Village, Casco Bay YMCA/Cousins River Trail, and Winslow Park.

The plan’s key recommendations include a pedestrian and bike path across Interstate 295 that would connect the town to its recreational fields, and a trail from the middle school to the high school that would include a lighted, pedestrian-activated crosswalk over Mallett Drive.

The council suggested several edits to the draft document, including moving its priorities to the front, and adding ballpark costs for those priorities.

“It’s hard to get a perspective about the magnitude of the plan without a quote,” Councilor Sarah Tracy said.

The councilors agreed that a revised draft will eventually go through the Planning Board process before returning to the council for a vote on adoption. Once adopted, the council would be in a position to pursue the plan’s recommendations and funding to help support them.

Councilors also agreed that the task force’s work, which included two public forums, two stakeholder meetings, and the collection of over 700 survey responses, should not go to waste.

“This is not going to sit on the shelf,” said Anne-Marie Davee, chairwoman of the task force. “It has hit an amazing chord with Freeport residents.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.