Uncertainty about funds after court affirms Brunswick land sale

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BRUNSWICK — Although a court ruling last week removed any remaining uncertainty about the town’s right to sell shorefront property at 946 Mere Point Road, questions remain about what will be done with proceeds from the transaction.

The 4-acre parcel was sold to a California couple in June for $550,000, despite an attempt by opponents to delay the sale until after the court’s decision in a lawsuit filed by residents in February to make the formerly town-owned land a park.

A Cumberland County Superior Court judge in Portland affirmed the sale, however, on Aug. 10.

Immediately after the Town Council decided to sell the land last September – a 5-4 vote that followed three months of debate that roiled the town – councilors opted to use proceeds from the sale to improve the town’s water access.

That could change.

“I think it’s going to be a debate,” Councilor Jane Millett said Tuesday about the use of the funds, which, she said should be used to reduce property taxes.

After the sale was finalized June 15, more than $100,000 of the money was used to pay fees associated with the sale, a lien on the property, and the outstanding back taxes that led to the town’s acquisition of the parcel in 2014, according to Finance Director Julia Henze.

The remaining amount – just over $440,000 – was transferred to a special reserve fund dedicated to improving water access, she said.

Millett’s comments Tuesday were prompted by a remark she made at an early August meeting, where she suggested that things have changed since last fall.

“Our priorities are very different and we need to do whatever we can to ease the burden on taxpayers,” she explained, citing the contentious budget season and voters’ June decision to locally fund construction of a $28 million school.

Though Millett originally favored making the property a park, she was one of three councilors who voted against using money from the sale to improve shoreland access.

Millett’s views contrasted with Councilor Steve Walker, who supported creating the park and made the motion to use the sale proceeds to improve water access.

Walker said in an email Monday that he’d like to see town committees and boards weigh in on use of the funds, and offered several examples.

The town could work as “a leading partner” in helping two local land trusts acquire Woodward Point, an 80-acre coastal property that will cost $3.5 million to purchase and maintain, he said. Walker is employed by one of those organizations, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and sits on the board of the other.

“Councilor (David) Watson is looking into improvements at Bay Bridge Landing. Also a good use of the funds,” Walker added.

Millett said she expects the question of what to do with the money will eventually come before the council. Town attorney Stephen Langsdorf said Monday only a vote by the council is necessary to release the funds for other uses.

But that, Millet acknowledged, could come at a political cost.

Culminating in the lawsuit against the town, last summer’s question over whether to create a park galvanized proponents of creating more watefront access for the residents of Brunswick, which has more than 60 miles of coastline that is mostly under private ownership.

They were met with opposition from abutters, as well as residents who lobbied to keep the valuable property on the tax rolls.

Following the council’s vote to sell, a petition drive was launched to overturn the decision through a voter referendum. Residents collected more than 1,100 names despite a warning from Langsdorf that the petition failed to follow a legal pathway in the Town Charter and would not obligate the council to act.

When the council rejected the petition in February, residents formed a nonprofit and sued.

To a degree, Justice Lance Walker’s ruling this month validated arguments on both sides.

He agreed with Langsdorf’s opinion that the petition lacked a basis in the charter, which does not include a legal channel for residents to overturn a council order.

However, he sided with the plaintiffs in declaring the council ought to have held a public hearing on the petition, which was authorized by the clerk’s office despite the apparent illegality of the proposal.

Any further action to correct the procedural error was deemed “moot” by the court because the town sold the property in June.

“The judge’s ruling helps clarify the procedure going forward, but it also fully supports the decision made by the council based on my opinion,” Langsdorf said Monday.

Plaintiff Sockna Dice, a co-founder of Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government, said in a press release Tuesday that the group will not appeal the decision, given its limited financial resources.

“Instead, we will focus our resources and energies on pushing for a more responsive town government,” she said.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A Superior Court judge sided with the town of Brunswick earlier this month in its sale of property at 946 Mere Point Road. But at least one town councilor is now questioning whether the town should stick to a 2016 decision to use proceeds from the sale to improve public waterfront access.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.