North Yarmouth board blocks competing school redevelopment question

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NORTH YARMOUTH — Selectmen Tuesday unanimously rejected authorization of an alternative ballot referendum about redevelopment of the North Yarmouth Memorial School property.

It was the second time in a year that a referendum question about proposed redevelopment has been challenged by a citizen petition; selectmen acquiesced last year, but not this time.

This time, the town attorney gave the Board of Selectmen “a framework, with case law and state law on how these issues are managed,” board Chairman Alex Carr said after Tuesday’s meeting. “There’s not a lot of case law, but there are laws about repetitive votes.”

The proposed Question No. 2 called for retaining the entire NYMS property, including the gym; using insurance funds to build a new Wescustogo Hall; and selling the Town Hall property for residential and/or for a commercial use to increase North Yarmouth’s tax base and provide funds for a new Town Hall on the property.

Question No. 1, which the board voted 3-1 March 29 to place on the ballot, reflects a proposal submitted by A.H. Grover Co. of North Yarmouth. The plan includes demolishing portions of the school building, but preserving the gym and stage area as part of an approximately 4,200-square-foot space.

Grover has proposed building a new, Wescustogo Hall of approximately 4,000 square feet on an existing foundation and concrete slab attached to the existing building.

A 30-lot senior housing community would be built in several phases, with a buffer established between those buildings and the community center. Two commercial lots would also be developed.

Selectman Steve Palmer, who cast the dissenting vote in March and resigned from the board the following day, proposed an amendment to the motion that called for “language that guides the town into a position that might be able to bring some of the ideas together.”

Other proposals had been presented at two February public hearings and in writing by those who want the town to take a different route.

A nonbinding straw poll of those in attendance at the first meeting showed 24 in favor of Grover, two for a Volunteers of America/Memoryworks proposal, nine uncertain, 33 for none of the above, and three for a combination of the two.

The second meeting saw 19 favoring Grover, four for VOA, nine uncertain, 17 for none of the above, and two for a combination.

The mixed results sparked the petition for an alternative June referendum question. It attracted 290 signatures – surpassing the 218, or 10 percent of the registered voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, required to put the question on the ballot.

“I’m discouraged that 290 people who signed the petition won’t get to vote on the question they wanted to vote on,” Rob Wood, one of those who gathered petition signatures, said after Tuesday’s meeting.

The Board of Selectmen reached four conclusions that helped it decide whether the second question should be added to the June 14 ballot, Carr said:

• The petition language would essentially be a second vote on a matter previously decided in last November’s referendum.

• It would not be “feasible, possible or legal” for the town to comply with the referendum if it did pass.

• Adding the question to the June ballot would interfere with the town’s “ability to rely on municipal decisions in the town … with any finality.”

• And there would be risks, including litigation, if the question were added to the ballot.

“In November (2015), we voted on two questions,” Carr said. “This was definitely a re-vote of both of those, because it was going to vote to redo Question 1, and vote to negate Question 2.”

Dueling questions

The closing by School Administrative District 51 of NYMS and its transfer of the 20-acre facility to the town in 2014 has been a key issue facing North Yarmouth. Reconstruction of Wescustogo Hall – the community-gathering place destroyed by fire in 2013 – has been another major factor as the town considers its future.

The original question placed on last November’s referendum was for redevelopment of NYMS as a municipal and community campus, sale of the existing Town Hall, and creation of a municipal sewer system to help facilitate new development.

Former Selectmen, Mark Verrill, Linc Merrill and Paul Napolitano led residents who organized a petition that opposed the recommendation. The petition led to a referendum, approved by voters last November, which directed the town to stop developing the school as a municipal and community campus and to not build a municipal sewer system.

It also called for Wescustogo Hall to be rebuilt, as stipulated in a 1997 agreement with the town; for Town Hall to be maintained and renovated; and for the town to seek proposals for the school building, and then gather citizen feedback on all proposals and have any plans for the school put to a referendum vote.

As a result of that question’s passage, the town sent requests for proposals for re-purposing the NYMS property to more than 30 developers and firms. Grover and VOA/Memoryworks were the only ones to submit proposals.

“We’ve already undertaken every aspect of Question 2,” Carr said Tuesday, noting that the process is underway, and “it would not be fair play” to compare the petition proposal, which he said had no detail, to Grover’s, which provides illustrations, numbers and a schedule.

The new No. 2

Pam Ames, Dixie Hayes and Rob Wood were among residents who gathered signatures to oppose the Grover plan.

“I think a lot of people felt that each of the proposals had good points, but I think we also felt that the town was looking to accomplish a lot, and neither proposal accomplished as much as we had hoped,” Hayes said April 13.

“People were really feeling that once this property was gone, our options were limited,” she added. “As long as we retain this property, there’s some flexibility and lots of possibilities for what can happen for the town.”

Wood called it “an opportunity that won’t come again,” adding, “We should get it right. It’ll take us a little more time, maybe, but we’re not beginning from zero. We know a lot of the (related) information. Let’s just have that discussion, and see what we can get for a positive consensus.”

Ames noted that “the 20-acre school property is the missing piece of the puzzle,” nestled between the Public Works facility and Cassidy Pit to create “a combined 85-acre land resource,” according to a Question 2 flier.

“It needs to stay all together,” Ames said. “This town can’t afford to buy any other large tracts of property.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Pam Ames, left, Dixie Hayes and Rob Wood are among North Yarmouth residents who collected enough petition signatures to place a question on the June 14 referendum ballot concerning redevelopment of the North Yarmouth Memorial School property. The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday declined to authorize the question.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.