Topsham to vote on budget, vernal pools regulations

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TOPSHAM — A $9.3 million municipal budget for fiscal 2017 goes to Town Meeting Wednesday, May 18.

The proposed budget reflects a 3.4 percent increase over current spending. 

The Board of Selectmen on April 14 unanimously approved the warrant for the meeting, which includes the budget, ordinance changes and several other articles. Both the board and the Finance Committee recommend passage of every budget item to be deliberated at Mt. Ararat High School beginning at 7 p.m.

Because there are only 52 pay periods in 2017, versus 53 in the current fiscal year, many of the departments show budget decreases. However, assessing expenses are up nearly 30 percent, or $32,400, largely because of the addition of a half-time employee to assist both the assessor and the finance office. Both are single-person departments.

The additional help would in part allow the assessor time to visit every property every four years, providing the town more up-to-date real estate values, according to Town Manager Rich Roedner.

Election spending shows an increase of about 26 percent, or nearly $3,000, which reflects extra costs going into this year’s presidential election. Insurance is down almost 20 percent, or nearly $22,000.

Perhaps the biggest non-budget item going before voters, Article 14, would amend the Town Code to create a vernal pool overlay zoning district. The change stems from the town’s effort a few years ago – with help from a University of Maine grant that trained citizen surveyors – to map out significant vernal pools, Roedner said in an interview April 15.

“Vernal pools have become a real lightning rod from a regulatory standpoint because … there are different state and federal regulations, so there’s no one answer,” the manager said.

Additionally, there are significant buffer requirements around vernal pools, he added.

A small vernal pool might be only 100 feet across, “but (if) you do a 750-foot circle around it, you’re talking tens of acres,” Roedner said. “You’re allowed to develop part of that buffer, but not all of it and, ultimately, what does that do to the vernal pool?”

If everything around it is developed, the habitat used the rest of the year by animals might be removed, he explained. Because of their sensitivity, vernal pools in developed land or within the boundaries of growth areas might not be viable in the long term, even if buffering regulations are met, Roedner said.

As a result, the town has worked in recent years with state and federal regulatory and environmental agencies to create a test program to change the way it regulates vernal pools.

The town would charge developers to fill a vernal pool deemed at risk within a growth area, and that money would be used to acquire vernal pools “in other areas that aren’t susceptible to growth pressures, but (where) we can preserve both the vernal pool and the upland habitat that’s necessary,” Roedner explained.

The new ordinance, supported by the Planning Board, would adopt the special area management plan and establish the developer fee system.

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

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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.