Harpswell water tower decision likely to go to voters

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HARPSWELL — As selectmen consider placing a decision on whether to dispose of an unused water tower at Mitchell Field in the hands of voters, public support for saving the structure is emerging.

Selectmen are expected to place an article on the 2015 Town Meeting warrant asking voters if they would like to have the tower demolished, according to Chairman Rick Daniel. 

The 100-foot-tall tower has been unused since the U.S. Navy closed its fuel depot in 1992. The property, called Mitchell Field, was transferred to the town in 2001. 

As selectmen consider what warrant article to put forward, a petition circulated by former Selectman David Chipman in support of keeping the structure has been attracting signatures.

Town officials have occasionally discussed what to do with the tower over the years. At Town Meeting in 2011, according to town records, voters authorized selectmen to lease the town to a telecommunications company for several years.

But an engineering report commissioned by selectmen in May raised concerns about the tower’s safety and lent urgency to the selectmen’s move to again put the issue to voters, Daniel said. 

The report, by Atlanta-based Utility Service Group, said that while the tower is in good structural condition, wear and corrosion of its coating, and other problems, should be addressed in the immediate future, or the tower will likely deteriorate further.

It also recommended filling the tower’s empty 100,000 gallon tank, to stabilize the structure. 

“We can’t keep putting it off for too many more years,” Daniel said. “Something either needs to become of it, or it needs to come down.” He added that he’d like citizens to bring a reuse proposal forward for consideration. 

In its report, Utility Services Group estimated removing the tower would cost $22,000. 

On the other hand, Schnitzer Steel, a scrap metal company with an office in Auburn, has offered to remove the tower at no cost to the town and to pay Harpswell $1 per gross ton it removes from the property. The tower is estimated to have about 200 tons of steel, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane.

A company representative made the offer to Eiane in October 2013. In a follow-up email sent on Nov. 3, Schnitzer said it could extend its offer, but because the steel market is currently low, it could not guarantee the price for more than 30 days. 

In contrast, the cost to refinish the tower and bring it back up to full capacity for drinking water storage could be as much as $430,000, according to the Utility Services Group report. 

In its assessment, USG said the cost could be spread over several years. It also offered its “asset management” services, which would have the town pay the company to maintain the structure – a cost that could be recouped with revenue from its possible use for wireless communication arrays. 

But considering the high cost, Selectman Elinor Multer questioned the viability of keeping the structure. 

“You can make all kinds of arguments, but the reality is that sooner or later, if we keep it, we have to spend a small fortune on it,” Multer said.

“It sits there as a growing liability,” she continued, adding that if the town waits too long, it might lose the opportunity to cash in on the Schnitzer offer. 

“I don’t see a reason to keep it and I see reasons not to,” Multer said. 

But Chipman said the town will lose a valuable asset if it decides to demolish the tower. 

He said his informal consultations with engineers and people who worked on the tower when it was last refinished have led him to believe that the price quoted by USG is “outrageously high.”

Chipman said he is working with a different company to get another estimate of how much it may cost to re-coat the structure. 

While he doesn’t have a firm reuse plan in mind, he said the tower could serve a variety of functions: providing drinking water to future businesses and homes at Mitchell Field, acting as a guide for navigators in Casco Bay, enhancing wireless service in South Harpswell, and providing water resources for the adjacent Harpswell Neck Fire Department. 

If the town decides to take the tower down, it has “erased an option,” Chimpan said. “The town has not fully explored its uses.”

Eventually, he said, he would like to form a nonprofit that would raise funds and organize to help support the structure’s maintenance.

Like Daniel, Selectman Kevin Johnson said he supports keeping the tower, as long as it can be put to practical use. 

“If we can find a use for it, I’m all about keeping it,” Johnson said.

Selectmen should also solicit other quotes for painting the tower, he added. 

“It’s going to be completely up to the voters,” Johnson said. “It’s their money.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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