Water tower demolition: Possibilities of lead, lawsuit latest hurdles in Harpswell

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HARPSWELL — Demolition of the Mitchell Field water tower is on hold while the town tests nearby land for lead contamination.

The town’s plan to demolish the tower also faces the growing possibility of a lawsuit from a local nonprofit that wants to save the Harpswell Neck Road tower. Members of Friends of Mitchell Field are meeting with an attorney this week to discuss their options.

Dorothy Rosenberg, a member of the group, said July 18 that seeking litigation is not the preferred course of action, but her group is “extremely unhappy with the town’s unwillingness to compromise.”

The Board of Selectmen, meanwhile on July 12 delayed voting to approve a contract with a demolition company. Instead, selectmen voted to have Portland-based Ransom Consulting test soil samples for lead on a piece of land abutting the tower.

In a phone call Wednesday, Rosenberg said the lawsuit would be about the town’s “unreasonable” rejection of her group’s 351-signature petition for a re-vote on the demolition of the water tower.

Rosenberg said there’s “no question” about whether the petition was valid.

In May, the selectmen rejected the petition from the group to save the tower. After Friends of Mitchell Field announced a Special Town Meeting for a re-vote, selectmen ruled such a meeting would be invalid on the advice of Town Attorney Amy Tchao. 

On July 3, the group sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen and Eiane arguing that Tchao’s points about the document’s validity were incorrect.

Tchao’s legal opinion, which is on the town website, states the warrant is invalid because selectmen’s refusal to act on the petition was justified because Town Meeting voted to demolish the water tower and “a re-vote on that question was not warranted.”

Friends of Mitchell Field was the only group to apply to lease the tower ahead of Town Meeting in March, and sought to use it as a cellular tower.

The group has argued voters did not have all of the information about Friends of Mitchell Field or the tower when they voted to demolish the structure at Town Meeting. 

At the July 12 meeting of the Harpswell Board of Selectmen, Rosenberg spoke about her time spent advocating to save the tower, and called the experience “deeply distressing.”

“I think there have been several actions taken by this board which are regrettable,” Rosenberg said. “I think calling a town meeting illegal prior to its even having taken place is very unfortunate and not really to be accepted.”

At the meeting, she also said “the only body” with the authority to determine whether the rejection of the group’s petition was valid is a court of law.

Her comments also spurred a heated discussion between selectmen July 12.

Chairman Rick Daniel criticized Selectman David Chipman, who he said had called the selectmen’s decision to reject the petition “unlawful.”

Daniel referred to Rosenberg’s statement about getting a declarative judgment from a court in his remarks to Chipman, and asked where Chipman got “his judicial ruling” to “call out” the other two selectmen.

Chipman responded by saying state law says a legal petition “shall be accepted.”

Selectman Kevin Johnson said he and Daniel made the decision to reject the petition after hearing Tchao’s legal opinion. But Chipman said the town attorney was incorrect in her findings.

“I think Amy has misguided us in a few places, I really do,” he said. “When I look at the statutes I think she’s wrong in a couple places.”

Johnson replied that he is “more likely” to listen to Tchao than to Chipman and specific members of Friends of Mitchell Field, to which Chipman said, “that may change.”

Daniel then posed a prophetic question: “Are they softening up the grounds for a lawsuit?” he said. “Because that’s what it sounds like to me.”

Rosenburg then confirmed this week that the Friends group is exploring legal action against the town. 

Before the tower is torn down, Ransom will collect six soil samples from the parcel of land adjacent to the water tower. The samples will be submitted to a laboratory for an analysis of lead levels, and results will be compared to previous samples.

The process will cost $1,000, from the Mitchell Field budget.

Selectmen did not vote on the contract for demolition with Iseler Demolition, on the advice of Town Administrator Kristi Eiane.

In an email July 17, Eiane said the contract was not voted on because she was “still in discussions with Ransom and the contractor about the soil sampling program and protocols, and needed more time to work out the details.”

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

Demolition of the Mitchell Field water tower is on hold while a private company conducts lead testing on nearby land. Friends of Mitchell Field is also considering filing a lawsuit against the town to prevent demolition. 

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