Court hears from Wiscasset, MDOT; walks downtown

Posted:  Saturday, April 14, 2018 - 7:00am
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Justice M. Michaela Murphy heard arguments in the Business and Consumer Court Friday from Wiscasset and Maine Department of Transportation.

Before the court came to order in Portland in the afternoon, lawyers and the justice walked Wiscasset's downtown to get an idea of the distances between the proposed parking areas and see where parking would be eliminated. The tour started on Water Street at the Haggett building and went to Railroad Avenue and the Main Street Pier and Middle Street.

Most of the sites were part of MDOT's recent request for bids. The exception is the Haggett building, which was not part of the current bid process since the town filed its injunction request after MDOT had planned to put the building's demolition out to bid. MDOT's attorney Nathan Rosenblatt told Murphy, "I am not authorized to say whether the Haggett building will be turned into parking at this point."

“What changed from the time when MDOT was willing to build a parking lot there and now,” she asked.

“There has been a suit filed against us, and we had to suspend that part of the project,” Rosenblatt said. “Our intention was to do the demolition in the winter, when it would have been safer and fewer people would have been impacted.”

John Shumadine outlined the town’s case, which he said was about “process." He argued the state was attempting to circumvent the town’s ordinances. “The town has ordinances and procedures in place for a reason,” he said.

“What would you have wanted MDOT to do that it had not done?” Murphy asked. “As I understand the timeline, the town voted for Option 2, which included off-street parking, and a committee made up of townspeople worked with MDOT to identify how they wanted the thing to look...”

“We were under the impression that there would be parking on Water Street when the vote was taken,” Shumadine said. He said MDOT should have worked with the town to protect its interests. “What we needed was another option,” he said.

“An option 3? What you are asking me to do is to force MDOT to put the parking on Water Street back into their plan? I am not sure I can do that,” she said. “And as I understand it, the townspeople voted for the plan to have Main Street parking removed.”

Shumadine said MDOT should have cooperated with the historic preservation ordinance and sought a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the Haggett building. He said the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission should have input into other structures, also. “The chains linking the bollards, for instance,” he said. “There might be more historically accurate chains.”

When Rosenblatt rose to address Murphy, he said the irony of Wiscasset objecting to the potential loss of parking at the Haggett building was stunning. “The town filed suit to prevent the demolition in December,” he said. “It seems to me that the town is saying that MDOT cannot do anything because it cannot do everything. This is not about the Haggett building, or about bollards or chains. This is about trying to put parking back on Main Street. That’s what the town wants.”

Rosenblatt quoted from the town’s comprehensive plan, which outlined the difficulties in traffic flow, danger to pedestrians and motorists, and parking issues on Main Street. He argued that the preservation ordinance is not a zoning ordinance per se, because it is not a land use ordinance and does not regulate the use of properties within the historic overlay district; it regulates only the exterior look of properties when changes to the properties are being made to make them conform to the look of other properties in the area.

Rosenblatt argued, MDOT had an obligation to take the town’s interests into consideration and did that in ways it was not legally required to do – being willing to accept the public’s desire with the 2016 vote, and working with the public to create an advisory committee to give MDOT guidance on issues like what sidewalk grates and lampposts would look like; the committee also provided valuable information about the need for a few parking spaces for loading zones and standing zones for handicapped on and offloading. “Those are things we are not required to do, from a legal perspective,” he said. “But it’s a matter of policy that we want the public to be part of the process.”

“No one is saying our status quo is a wonderful paradise,” Shumadine said. “There are issues in the town that do need to be addressed, including the issues of public safety and traffic issues. But again, this is about process. I think municipalities would be shocked to learn that historic preservation ordinances are not zoning ordinances.” He pointed out the ordinance included things ordinary zoning ordinances would have also addressed, such as setbacks and other dimensional uses of a parcel that are consistent with historic preservation.

Murphy said she would consider the matter as expeditiously as possible.