HARPSWELL — Leaders of a campaign to redraw the border with Brunswick are giving up after state lawmakers, for the second time, have voted against a bill that would have allowed the change.
In an 11-2 vote on May 6, the Committee on State and Local Government voted that LD 69 “ought not to pass,” before sending it to the House of Representatives.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Kimberly Olson, R-Phippsburg, would have altered the town line established in a 1998 agreement between the towns.
The new border would have run along the high-water mark in Middle Bay and “four rods” north of “the carrying place.” Most of Middle Bay and a swath of Harpswell Neck that are now in Brunswick would have become part of Harpswell, although the town would have ceded regulatory authority to Brunswick on those lands.
When the committee last met to discuss LD 69 on Feb. 16, legislators told the two towns to work out a compromise before returning to Augusta. But after two meetings, negotiators were unable to reach a deal.
Last week, in front of a crowd of shell fishermen and residents from both towns, ambiguity about where the historical boundary between the two towns actually is and fears of opening a “Pandora’s Box” of litigation prompted a majority of committee members to vote against the bill.
“There’s no precedent for a town monitoring another town’s territory in the state, and it would open up future unforeseeable litigation that could occur,” said Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, who offered the “ought not to pass” motion.
“Let’s guarantee the history, celebrate the history, but let’s not throw two towns into litigation,” said the committee co-chairman, Rep. David Cotta, R-China.
Brunswick’s presentation of new information appeared to influence the committee members who voted against the bill.
Bruce Martinson, a surveyor who was hired by Harpswell in 1998 to map the town line, told the committee that he saw all the archival documents in 1998 that Harpswell claimed to have unearthed since then. He also said defining the “carrying place” is nearly impossible.
After listening to Martinson, Cotta said he hadn’t heard enough compelling evidence to convince him to overturn the 1998 agreement and “create turmoil.”
Other representatives worried about the fate of Brunswick clam harvesters, who claimed they would have lost 15 licenses if the bill went through, despite Harpswell’s repeated assurance that would not happen.
“I don’t want to affect in any way the livelihood of the people out there doing the clamming,” said Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-York.
However the bill did have its supporters. Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, wanted the bill to pass and said she believed the two towns could work out any jurisdictional issues that arose.
“Whether or not there are issues about managing the flats, this is still about a boundary line,” she said, “the towns can come to some agreement about how the flats are used.”
But Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who testified before the committee, said the two towns have thus far been unable to compromise, and encouraged the panel to make a decision.
“We can’t leave this ambiguous,” he said. “It’s all or nothing.”
After the “ought not to pass” vote, Brunswick officials were elated.
“I think the committee heard the concerns we’ve been expressing all along,” said Town Manager Gary Brown. “The problems that could have resulted in changing the boundary exceeded the emotional benefit in restoring the boundary.”
Mark Latti, vice chairman of the Brunswick Marine Resource Committee, said the town’s shellfish harvesters were “feeling very relieved, but I would say they’re still a little cautious because while the vote was very favorable, it wasn’t unanimous, so it still lives on.”
Brunswick’s relief was Harpswell’s chagrin.
Jim Henderson, a selectman who also sat on Harpswell’s negotiating team during the conversations with Brunswick, said he was disappointed. He thanked the committee for giving the bill more attention than the previous time Harpswell attempted to change the boundary in 2009.
“I think the committee gave us a fair hearing during the whole process,” Henderson said. “Unfortunately the single issue they focused on was whether Harpswell could cede its authority over the intertidal zone without legal complications.”
Amy Haible, a member of the Carrying Place Assembly, the group that spearheaded the border-change effort, said she felt like Brunswick focused its resources on trying to sway the legislative committee in its favor as opposed to seeking a compromise with Harpswell.
“Brunswick out-spent us, they out-gunned us,” she said. “We should have been up there lobbying as much as they were.”
Haible said the assembly researched the historical town line for three years, and it was the group’s “last, best effort.” She said she does not plan to reopen the discussion.
In the final vote, Reps. Michael Celli, R-Brewer; Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford; Bryan Kaenrath, D-South Portland; Lance Evan Harvell, R-Farmington; Beth Turner, R-Burlington; Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth; Bolduc; Moulton; Cotta, and Senators Douglas Thomas, R-Somerset and Ronald Collins, R-York; and voted “ought not to pass.”
Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-York, and Boland voted “ought to pass.”