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Harpswell voters weigh spending $85K for waterfront access

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Harpswell voters weigh spending $85K for waterfront access

HARPSWELL — A debate over the town's Nov. 5 referendum on the purchase of land for waterfront access boiled down to two competing views at an Oct. 17 public hearing.

If voters agree, the town will buy a nearly 6,000-square-foot parcel to ensure access at a popular town landing, adjacent to town-owned Lookout Point off Middle Bay.

The land's current owners, Allen's Seafood proprietor Dain Allen and his stepson, Albert Rose, have traditionally allowed the public to use their land.

On the other hand, the use of $85,000 from the town's unassigned fund balance to buy the land would also mean the town couldn't use those funds to offset next year's tax commitment.

The Board of Selectmen estimates the impact on 2014 property taxes would be about an eighth of 1 percent, or $9 for a home valued at $200,000.

The town's assessed value of the land is $92,000, which represents about 92 percent of the market value. No independent appraisals were done ahead of the Board of Selectmen's proposal.

The issue comes at a time when a local group is trying to secure access to Cedar Beach on Bailey Island from private property owners. Fishermen also say that public access points have been limited across town because of private ownership.

At Thursday's hearing, former Selectman Gordon Weil told the Board of Selectmen he opposes the purchase for multiple reasons.

Weil said "$85,000 is, in my view, is very costly for a piece of property of limited use to the town." He said proposing such an expenditure should have required an independent appraisal or evidence of a competing offer.

In addition, the former selectman said a proposed expenditure of this amount should have been held for next year's Town Meeting, an annual meeting where townspeople and selectmen deliberate and vote on the town's budget and other matters.

Weil also questioned the terms of use for the proposed purchase, which will allow the land's current owners the ability to use the lot in 14-day periods for the next 20 years.

The term means Allen and Rose could technically use the lot for the entire calendar.

But Rose said with his and Allen's planned use, that would be highly unlikely.

"We're hoping that by allowing the town to purchase the property, it will always be retained for what it's been used for," Rose said.

Selectman Alison Hawkes said she thinks voters should support the land purchase because water access is an important issue for the town, which means that investments are sometimes required.

"I think anybody knows with the Cedar Beach thing, we're having issues with water access," she said. "I think Allen's offering it at a more than reasonable price. I think he's a reasonable owner in (having let) the town use it for all these years."

Chairwoman Elinor Multer said the proposed purchase could not wait for approval at next year's Town Meeting because it's a time-sensitive offer, which Allen later confirmed.

Multer also said the town doesn't always use all of its unassigned fund balance to offset the town's tax commitment.

Deputy Town Administrator Terri Sawyer said the town voted at this year's Town Meeting to offset taxes with $392,000 of the $540,000 unassigned fund balance from last year, excluding a mandated amount used to cover town operations for the first three months of the year.

The town calculates the unassigned fund balance at the beginning of every year to account for any lapsed funds from the previous year's budget, Sawyer said.

Polls will be open on Nov. 5 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Harpswell mainland residents vote at Merriconeag Grange Hall, 529 Harpswell Road; Great Island residents vote at Cundy's Harbor Community Building, 837 Cundy's Harbor Road, and Bailey Island and Orr's Island residents cast their ballots at Orr's Island Schoolhouse, 1594 Harpswell Islands Road.

Absentee ballots are available from the town clerk's office at Town Hall, 263 Mountain Road, until Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. They must be returned to Town Hall by the time the polls close on Nov. 5.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.