Petition may challenge fate of Harpswell water tower

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HARPSWELL — Despite a Town Meeting vote to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower last month, the fight to save it may not be over.

Selectmen were informed April 19 that a 400-signature petition challenging the demolition vote would be delivered this week, according to Robert McIntyre, a member of the Harpswell nonprofit Friends of Mitchell Field.

The petition came up at the Board of Selectmen’s April 19 meeting, where Chairman Rick Daniel also questioned Selectman David Chipman about his involvement with Friends of Mitchell Field, his knowledge of the petition, and “bias” regarding the tower.

On April 24, McIntyre said his nonprofit is planned Thursday to submit a petition with approximately 400 signatures.

On April 23, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the town had already received a petition sheet with three signatures from one circulator on April 20.

The smaller petition, which will not be verified by the Town Clerk due to not having the minimum number of 307 votes, requested voters have an opportunity to repeal the March 10 Town Meeting decision in a future election.

It also asks voters be able to authorize the Board of Selectmen to enter into a five-year agreement with Friends of Mitchell Field to lease the tower.

McIntyre said the petition with three signatures was the result of “somebody acting spontaneously,” but bears the same message the larger petition will convey.

The group’s argument to challenge the Town Meeting vote, he said, is that residents at Town Meeting were not informed of all the details of the Friends of Mitchell Field’s proposal, and details about the tower the group had collected.

If the 400-signature petition is received, the town clerk will have to verify 307 signatures of registered voters. Then, the town’s attorney would be asked to review it and provide advice to the Board of Selectmen about how to proceed.

At the April 19 meeting, Friends of Mitchell Field member Dorothy Rosenberg explained the group’s concerns about the demolition vote.

“There is information that should have been available prior to Town Meeting, that has only been available since Town Meeting,” she said.

Rosenberg went on to say after the Water Tower Task Force was disbanded, she got more information regarding the tower from three cell tower management companies.

One key fact, she said, was that a new, higher cell phone tower cannot be built in place of the water tower due to regulations and an airstrip located north of Mitchell Field.

“If we take the tower down we cannot replace it,” she said. “We felt, or at least I felt, that that was an important enough piece of information that people should be aware of the fact that if we remove the tower we don’t have the option of replacing it on Mitchell Field.”

Daniel said the board has asked its energy and technology committee to evaluate all options regarding better cell phone service in town.

“All that we are asking for is that a final decision be delayed until the next election, which is in June, at which point there should be a ballot vote on whether or not to proceed,” Rosenberg said.

Daniel replied that the issue cannot make it onto the upcoming June 12 ballot, because the 60-day window had already closed.

Daniel also questioned Selectman David Chipman on his involvement with the Friends of Mitchell Field and the potential petition, and said Chipman had gone to the town attorney to discuss the petition independent of the other selectmen.

Chipman previously circulated a petition in 2015 that garnered 120 signatures and led the Board of Selectmen not to put the issue on the 2015 Town Meeting warrant. Chipman also spoke at the 2018 Town Meeting in support of saving the tower.

When asked by Daniel, Chipman said he is not an official founder of the Friends of Mitchell Field, and he can separate his feelings on the issue.

“I think, though I’m capable of making decisions, as they say, on behalf of the people of Harpswell, not for myself. I think I’m able to take that bias out of it,” he said.

Selectman Kevin Johnson reminded Chipman of his responsibility to the town.

“Your job as a selectman is to uphold the votes at Town Meeting,” Johnson said. “What you’re doing is in complete opposition of what was done at Town Meeting, and I don’t think it sets a very good precedent.”

Ultimately, Daniel said the Board would continue with business as usual until a petition was received, and Selectmen voted unanimously to allow the Request for Proposal for contractors to be issued.

Proposals will be due May 14.

“I don’t see us putting off our work for something that hasn’t come, or may not come,” Daniel said.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Despite a vote to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower at Harpswell Town Meeting, members of Friends of Mitchell Field said a 400-signature petition to save the tower will be submitted to the town this week.

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