Harpswell Town Meeting OKs funds for water tower, land trust

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HARPSWELL — Two projects that were the subject of some heavy promotion found favor with voters Saturday, March 12, at a packed annual Town Meeting.

About 220 residents came to the Harpswell Community School to pass every article – except one, which was tabled – in about two hours.

The meeting went so smoothly that Basin Point resident Robert McIntyre declared, “Harpswell has a shortage of hatred this year.”

After a campaign led by some residents, voters agreed to preserve the aging, 100-foot water tower at Mitchell Field, originally used for drinking water when the property was a U.S. Navy fuel depot. The tower has been empty since 1992.

Residents also passed articles approving money for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, further restrictions on pesticides, and plans for future development at Mitchell Field.

Selectman initially voted to send a warrant article to Town Meeting allocating $22,000 to remove the water tower at Mitchell Field. An engineering report done in 2014 pegged the costs of restoring it at about $430,000.

But some residents, including McIntyre and David I. Chipman, also of Basin Point, did not want the tower torn down. They argue it could still provide water for future development at Mitchell Field, or be used to mount wireless communications equipment.

They also say it’s an important landmark, used by many for navigation. Chipman strings holiday lights around it in the winter.

McIntyre, Chipman, and a group of residents loosely organized under the name “Friends of the Water Tower” gathered a petition with 344 signatures to put the $22,000 recommended by selectmen into a donation fund to save the tower.

After the petition was officially authorized by the town clerk’s office, the Board of Selectmen met again to discuss the proposed warrant article.

Selectmen, in a final-hour switch, withdrew the proposal to remove the water tower, and replaced it with one to use the $22,000 for the purpose of “repairing, maintaining, and obtaining engineering analyses.”

“We never wanted to take (the tower) down just to take it down,” Rick Daniel, chairman of the board of selectmen, said Saturday. He said once word of the effort to preserve the tower got out, a Tennessee-based company actually submitted some cost estimates to the town.

According to him, the company said it could renovate the structure into a fully-functioning water tower for $360,000, or make it “structurally sound” for $160,000.

At Town Meeting, petition organizers endorsed the selectmen’s new warrant article.

“Vote yes on this, let’s move forward, let’s develop Mitchell Field,” Chipman said. He also pledged $1,000 to the renovation fund.

But not everyone was swayed by the pitch. Nelson Barter, of West Harpswell, said, “We’re looking at potentially $400,000 just to refurbish a standing structure.”

Citing the argument that it could be used for water at the Harpswell community garden, Barter said, “If it was going to cost me $400,000 to grow vegetables I’d probably stop.”

Barter said he is a longtime Harpswell Neck Fire Department volunteer, and Brunswick and Topsham Water District employee.

Paying to rehab the water tower “is going to be a boondoggle,” he concluded, drawing applause from the crowd.

But ultimately a majority of voters passed the article written by selectmen and endorsed by water tower supporters. An article that contained language from the petition was tabled. 

The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust also found voter favor for its request of town funds to help it acquire a 70-acre parcel along Otter Brook on Harpswell Neck.

Otter Brook is the second-largest freshwater stream in Harpswell. The parcel, which actually consists of two properties, will cost about $440,000 to purchase, according to HHLT Executive Director Reed Coles. The trust asked town voters to approve a $75,000 appropriation towards this goal.

Coles said he breathed a huge sigh of relief after the vote.

“You never know until it’s over,” he said. “(But) the support was overwhelming.”

The town also passed an update to its ordinance regulating pesticides, limiting the use of chemicals called neonicotinoids for outdoor, non-agricultural application.

Other articles passed included adopting the recommendations to remove the crumbling pier at Mitchell Field and build a boat launch to that site’s master plan, and to appropriate $150,000 for the removal of a collapsed pump house on the pier.

After the meeting, Selectman Daniel applauded how seamlessly the meeting had moved.

But, he noted, many of the day’s votes set up more consequential decisions for next year’s Town Meeting, such as approving money for projects like the pier removal, boat ramp construction, and water tower renovation.

“I don’t expect next year’s meeting will get out (so quickly),” he said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

More than 200 people attended Town Meeting March 12 at the Harpswell Community School.

Nellie Clifford, at left, and Laura Brady work the concession stand at the March 12 Harpswell Town Meeting. Snacks ranged from store-bought donuts to homemade cupcakes and pasta salad.

Robert McIntyre, of Basin Point, celebrates after voters approved funds for the preservation of the water tower at Mitchell Field.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.