HARPSWELL — Town Meeting on March 15 approved a $4.58 million municipal budget for the 2014 calendar year.
But there might be more costs ahead – and some legal questions – because of the body’s decision to accept a deeded easement for Cedar Beach, which is not currently accessible by a public road.
The nearly six-hour meeting, which approved new expenditures for round-the-clock paramedic services and a new marine resources position as part of the municipal budget, was punctuated by a two-hour debate between voters and elected officials over how the town should accept the Cedar Beach easement.
And while a few of the municipal budget’s proposed expenditures were challenged by some voters, the budget remained largely unscathed in the end.
The approved municipal budget represents a 4.6 percent increase from last year, and is expected to contribute to a 3.8 percent increase in property taxes. Based on preliminary county and school budgets, the overall tax rate is expected to increase by 5.6 percent from last year, to $6.10 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The meeting’s nearly 9 percent turnout, with 347 of the town’s almost 4,000 registered voters showing up to participate, was a slight increase from last year’s 6 percent turnout, which only saw 240 voters.
The meeting’s formal decision on Cedar Beach involved authorizing the Board of Selectmen to accept a no-cost deeded easement for a parcel of land that connects privately owned Cedar Beach Road to the Bailey Island beach.
The land is owned by Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, who are offering the easement in exchange for requiring the town to enforce 16 terms and conditions for use of the beach, some of which have significant financial implications.
Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, the group that has spearheaded the beach access issue since 2012, secured the agreement with the Aspatores in a court-ordered mediation in February. CB/CIS sued the Aspatores last August in Cumberland County Superior Court, seeking a court order declaring that an easement exists on the land.
Attorney Martin Eisenstein, of Lewiston-based Brann & Isaacson, who represents CB/CIS, said he expects the Town Meeting decision to end the lawsuit.
Two conditions in the easement agreement include hiring a beach monitor to enforce the easement rules – estimated to cost up to $5,000 a year – and maintaining parking on nearby Robinhood Road, with an estimated cost of around $40,000 to widen its shoulders, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane.
Another condition requires a sign, estimated to cost $1,000, that identifies the easement area, lists rules for using the beach, and displays a disclaimer that states the Aspatores are not liable for any accidents or injuries on the beach.
Furthermore, Eiane said, the town will have to develop a system for identifying people who have permission to use the beach, which will only be open to residents, non-resident taxpayers, and their guests. She estimated the cost of this will be minimal in relation to other expenses.
Eiane said the town will likely have to appropriate the additional expenditures at a special Town Meeting.
The town’s beach monitor will have to enforce the rules, including a prohibition on motor vehicles, pets, inappropriate behavior, public indecency, littering, fires, storage of recreation equipment, and improvements to the easement area.
Eiane said town staff and selectmen are expected to discuss how the town will enforce the terms and conditions at an upcoming meeting.
An obstacle the town may have to face is a literal obstacle to the privately owned portion of Cedar Beach Road, the only road that leads to the beach. The road, owned by Charles and Sally Abrahamson, was closed to public access and limited to abutting property owners and their guests in September 2011.
CB/CIS is suing the Abrahamsons in Cumberland County Superior Court for a prescriptive easement to the road.
Eisenstein said the lawsuit, which was filed in October 2012, is scheduled to go to mediation on April 3.
“If we’re not able to resolve it in mediation,” he said, “we go to trial in the month of April or May.”
If a settlement is reached, the town could use $220,000 in bonds appropriated at last year’s Town Meeting to secure any remaining easements. The release of funds expires at the end of the year.
In the meantime, Eiane said, there may be some creative ways to address the road issue if it isn’t resolved by the time the town has to accept the Cedar Beach easement. They include the possibility of hiring a beach monitor who already has permission to use the road, or using a town boat to access the beach by sea.
Before Town Meeting approved the warrant article authorizing the selectmen to accept the Cedar Beach easement, voters stripped three stipulations from the article.
The stipulations, sought by selectmen and opposed by CB/CIS, would have required the town to obtain an easement on Cedar Beach Road and a release of restrictions on the beach easement from an abutting property owner before the town accepts the easement. They would have also required that property owner to provide off-street parking for the town’s beach monitor.
Chairwoman Elinor Multer said the Board of Selectmen wanted the stipulations because, otherwise, the town will face too much liability in exchange for receiving land that is difficult to access for most people.
And with limited access, she said, it’s hard to predict if everyone will follow the Cedar Beach rules, which could be problematic if the Aspatores believe the town fails to enforce them.
“How the Aspatores will react to various situations is also unknown,” Multer said. “Will they demand a very strict interpretation of the agreement and complain about every small, unintended violation? No one can predict.”
She said a dispute resolution clause in the deal could allow the Aspatores to take any disputes to an arbitrator, who could force the town to pay the Aspatores $10,000 or more.
CB/CIS representatives said the stipulations weren’t discussed with them in their last closed-door meeting with selectmen. They opposed the added terms because obtaining the road easement and additional releases could have pushed CB/CIS past a March 31 mediation deadline for the Aspatores’ easement.
At the end of the Town Meeting, while CB/CIS leaders and members were celebrating their victory, Multer expressed concern about what she called the “very big risk” the town is taking.
“I think it’s the most unfortunate single-minded effort, in which it was clear the majority of people weren’t paying any attention to the potential costs,” she said. “Down the road, this may get to be something that many regret. The (easement) goes on almost indefinitely. This is a permanent commitment.”
Unlike the Cedar Beach issue, Town Meeting’s proposal to continue round-the-clock paramedic services for the next 12 months was approved with no debate.
A special Town Meeting last December approved an increase in Mid Coast Hospital’s paramedic services from 12 hours a day, five days a week, to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from January to March. The increase has cost the town an extra $35,000, which was paid from the town’s unassigned fund balance.
With a renewed commitment for paramedic services, the arrangement will now continue from April to March 2015. Full paramedic services this year will cost the town about $239,000, nearly double the amount spent last year.
Selectmen and the town’s three fire chiefs have all said there is a greater need for dedicated paramedic services because of the town’s aging population, a decrease in volunteer emergency medical technicians, and the paramedic’s ability to respond to emergencies faster and more effectively than volunteer EMTs.
Another significant proposal approved by Town Meeting allows the town to spend $30,000 to hire a marine resources expert, who will focus on resource management and shellfish conservation along the coastline.
Eiane said town staff are expected to solicit bids from companies that could provide the services the town seeks.
Other new expenditures approved included $15,000 to help fund a $70,000 playground for Harpswell Community School; $12,000 to hire a consultant who will study the town’s salaries and wages; and a new $10,000 reserve for land acquisition and improvements.
Town Meeting also approved a change to the subdivision ordinance that will allow developers and property owners to operate under a more flexible kind of subdivision rule, which will allow conservation land to be incorporated more widely throughout subdivided lots.