Topsham Town Meeting voters to weigh $8.1M budget

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TOPSHAM — A new ladder truck for the Fire Department and a Public Works Department plow truck are among the fiscal 2012 budget requests to be presented to Town Meeting on Wednesday, May 18.

Next year’s proposed $8.09 million municipal budget is down slightly from the current $8.14 spending plan. With School Administrative District 75 and Sagadahoc County costs included, Topsham’s entire budget would be $18.46 million, up from $18.32 this year.

Revenues are down from $3.9 million this year to the $3.6 million expected in fiscal 2012. The amount from taxes would rise, from $14.4 million to $14.9 million.

The property tax rate is estimated to climb from $14.75 per $1,000 of valuation to $15.91. Topsham’s loss of about $45 million in value contributes to 70 cents of the $1.16 increase.

The ladder truck is expected to cost $800,000. A $200,000 down payment would include $50,000 from taxes and $150,000 from the fire truck reserve account. The other $600,000 would be paid over 10 years through a general obligation bond or lease/purchase agreement.

The department’s 1987 vehicle is not appropriate to refurbish and has been a drain on maintenance expenses, according to a Topsham Fire and Rescue document in support of the new vehicle.

Also in the budget is $135,000 for the plow truck. A down payment of $35,000 would come from taxes and the $100,000 balance would be paid over five years through a general obligation bond or lease/purchase agreement. The vehicle would replace a 1980s model.

Voters will decide whether to authorize the Board of Selectmen to go out to bid for both vehicles.

New zone, digital signs

Following the budget portion of Town Meeting, another item for consideration will be the proposed establishment of a Limited Commercial zone along about two-thirds of a mile of Route 196, west of Interstate 295.

The southwestern side of the road – a narrow, one-lot-deep strip of which would be rezoned – is now part of the Suburban Residential district. The opposite side has Rural Commercial Use and Commercial Corridor zoning.

Current commercial uses comprise about a third of the narrow strip and are grandfathered, although existing home-based businesses are also allowed, Planning Director Rich Roedner said.

Town officials have been told it is difficult to sell homes in the zone, due to the largely commercial nature of the area. It is also difficult to convert a home to a strictly commercial use, unless that property is on a grandfathered lot, Roedner said.

He said the non-conforming uses of those commercial lots are grandfathered, so a retail establishment, for example, would be grandfathered for a retail establishment of that size, and not for a general commercial use.

“What we’re hearing from the property owners (there) is that the value for those lots, as residential, is minimal, because … how many people want to buy a house and raise a family on (Route) 196?,” Roedner said, referring to it being a high-traffic area with many surrounding commercial uses.

The rezoning would allow a greater number of low-intensity commercial uses and require buffering between those businesses and nearby residences. It would not permit all the types of commercial uses that are generally allowed in a commercial zone.

Voters will also decide on an ordinance regulating electronic message boards or digital signs in certain parts of town. Topsham currently has only four, and the town has governed them based on state regulations. But the state’s language has been relaxed, so the town wants to establish its own regulations.

Under the proposed language, the signs would be allowed in the southwest and northwest quadrants of the interchange of Interstate 295 and Route 196 – the Mixed Use Commercial 1 district, and the Commercial Corridor 196 and Business Park districts, respectively. They would be permitted on the east side of I-295 along Route 196 as far as Route 201 (the commercial corridor), in the area of the intersection of Route 196 and Route 201 (the Village Center district), and north on Route 201 (the Limited Industrial district).

The signs could not be off-premise and posted messages would have to run for at least one minute, except for time and temperature signs. No streaming images or video would be allowed.

Town Meeting will be held at Mt. Ararat High School at 7 p.m. May 18.

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.