Harpswell Town Meeting OKs waterfront, firefighting changes

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HARPSWELL — Town Meeting on March 11 took the first steps toward improving the public waterfront and professionalizing fire and rescue services.

Voters also elected Planning Board Chairman and former Selectman David Chipman to the Board of Selectmen. Chipman defeated Ellen Shillinglaw, 309-285, to complete the remaining year of Selectman Elinor Multer‘s third term.

Selectman Kevin Johnson won a second three-year term with 516 votes.

Around 230 voters at the Harpswell Community School approved a $5 million annual budget and all 71 warrant articles.

A license agreement that “achieves an objective of keeping Cedar Beach Road open,” according to Selectman Rick Daniel, passed at the beginning of the four-hour meeting with vocal approval from supporters of public access.

The agreement – a deal selectmen struck with the road owner, Betsy Atkins –resolves a five-year battle that went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court last July, when a judge vacated a lower court decision that granted an easement to the Bailey Island beach access road.

“Now we are where we want to be,”  Martin Eisenstein, board member of the Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, told voters Saturday. The group had sued to secure access.

Voters later approved borrowing $5 million to remove the Navy pier at Mitchell Field, a structure residents voted to demolish the previous year. The pier is gradually deteriorating and represents a safety and environmental liability to the town.

The town will likely repay the bond over 20 years, according to town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly.

To give voters an idea of the impact, Kelly explained in a worksheet, “If the first payment had been required in 2016 and all other components of the property tax rate were unchanged, the tax rate would have been $6.64 rather than $6.40, a 3.75 percent increase.”

“For a property assessed at $400,000, the increase in the property tax obligation would have been slightly less than $100,” she said.

When the pier is gone – a project that should take about a year – the town can move forward with developing the area’s public waterfront. Voters appropriated $150,000 to serve as matching funds for a grant to replace the pier.

Jane Covey, chairwoman of the Mitchell Field Committee, said residents will have to approve the committee’s replacement recommendation – a seasonal float in ramp system – at next year’s Town Meeting.

The town then decided to augment volunteer fire and rescue services with paid help.

Last spring, the Fire and Rescue Planning Committee formed to address the lack of daytime fire and rescue coverage across the town’s three volunteer fire departments.

The fruits of their labor – an ordinance that allows the town to hire two paid firefighters and appoint a municipal fire administrator – passed with unanimous support.

Responding to a question, Kevin Johnson confirmed the step was the first in the town’s eventual move toward professionalizing fire and rescue services.

The ordinance preserves the structure and protocols that already exist within the volunteer departments – something that mattered strongly to volunteers, Orr’s and Bailey’s Island Fire Chief Benjamin Wallace said by phone Tuesday.

“Basically the town gave us exactly what we were asking for,” Wallace said.

The planning committee has met 19 times since last spring, and Wallace said while plans are in place to increase paid support over time – culminating in the likely construction of a central municipal fire station – the volunteer model isn’t ever going away.

“I don’t perceive a point in which the volunteer system will collapse,” he said, nor does he doubt the town will reach “the point that we will no longer to be able to recruit volunteers.”

Harpswell lacks the infrastructure to support an entirely professional department, he noted.

“It literally takes twice as many folks to put out a fire in a town like Harpswell than Brunswick because Brunswick has a public water system,” which Harpswell does not, he said.

He said he foresees a time when the town will have to supplement a majority of paid firefighters with volunteers – a partnership that will keep a smaller but essential volunteer model alive.

But it will be a while before the number of paid firefighters outranks the number of volunteers, Wallace said, and additional paid support will come as needed.

“There are some advantages to a (professional) centralized model, but we should only move forward on the next steps (toward professionalizing services) when there are indicators that we need to,” he said – namely, the dearth of volunteer support.

Going forward, Wallace said the committee needs to write job descriptions for the fire administrator and paid firefighters, and hopes to have the positions filled by July.

On Monday, Chipman said he submitted his resignation from the Planning Board after he was sworn in as a selectman.

He also thanked Ellen Shillinglaw for a clean and friendly campaign, and acknowledged Multer’s work on the board.

“Let’s just say that I’m filling a big pair of shoes,” he said.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 761-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Nearly 230 Harpswell voters gathered at the Harpswell Community School March 11 to pass a $5 million budget and all 71 Town Meeting warrant articles. A license agreement for the use of the Cedar Beach access road and borrowing $5 million to remove the Mitchell Field pier received nearly unanimous approval.

Chipman

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.