Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission

Colby leans toward abolishing preservation commission

Posted:  Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 4:30pm

Wiscasset select board Chair Judy Colby said April 20, she was leaning toward disbanding the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission after a hearing set for May 9.  The location and time of the meeting are still to be determined.

It is too late to ask voters to consider revoking the Historic Preservation Ordinance at this year’s town meeting, June 13. The municipal warrant articles were approved April 4. However, it would be possible to call a special town meeting if that was the will of the Board of Selectmen, by posting public notice in advance.

Colby said that after hearing stories, including that of Celeste Edwards, she is currently leaning toward disbanding the commission altogether rather than replacing individual members. “I’m just one person, of course, and when I hear things at this hearing, I may change my mind. But I have heard stories privately from many people who have come to me to complain about the commission’s behavior,” she said. “Celeste Edwards was willing to come forward, in public, to tell her story. I felt I had to issue her a public apology because citizens should never be treated like that by public officials.” Colby said she is hopeful other people will come to share their experiences to inform the selectmen’s final decision.

The commission denied Edwards, of Fort Hill Street, a certificate of appropriateness April 6 and was formally informed April 14, in a letter from the commission that also demanded she remove the fence. She asked to be placed on the agenda of the selectmen’s April 18 meeting to complain about the way she was treated by the commission, not to address the issue of the certificte she requested. Edwards is in the process of filing an appeal on the fence issue; that will be heard by the town’s Board of Appeals.

Selectmen rejected a request by commission member James Kochan to postpone the hearing.

Kochan wrote in an April 19 letter to Town Manager Marian Anderson and the select board, he would be out of town on May 9. “I, for one, am unable to attend in person to represent myself, a right as citizen and board member to which I am fully entitled in order to face accusers, hear and present evidence on both my behalf and those of my fellow commissioners.’

He said he was also concerned about the protocol of the hearing. 

However, while the impetus for the hearing was Edwards’ complaint to selectmen, the hearing was not scheduled to deal with her appeal.

Kochan believed the hearing should be postponed until after Edwards’ appeal process was complete.

Anderson said she passed Kochan’s letter on to the selectmen, although she believed it was unlikely the meeting would be postponed. Selectman Ben Rines pointed out, there are few meetings when every member is present, but in this case, it is the selectmen who need a quorum, not members of the commission. “May 9 is the date we could be there, so that’s when it will be,” he said. “It’s open to everyone, members of the public, the commission, and anyone else who wants to attend. One person being away isn’t a good enough reason to postpone it.”

Colby said she was also disturbed by reading in the newspaper about an executive session the commissioners called for to discuss a personnel issue, which was she said was about a town employee who was not present. “That was illegal,” she said. “I think that members of this Commission have taken on more than their stated responsibilities, and when other members, who do understand municipal politics, including Susan Blagden and John Reinhardt do nothing, the other members may feel that this sort of behavior is acceptable. It is not.” Colby confirmed that the employee the executive session regarded was Planner Ben Averill.

Colby said that at the conclusion of the hearing, the board may choose to do nothing, to replace certain members of the commission, or to disband the commission altogether and give their duties to the Planning Board. “Or the citizens may decide to do away with the Historic Preservation Ordinance altogether later on,” she said. “We can’t have an ordinance that has the effect of preventing people from taking care of their homes, or forcing them to sell their homes and move.”

An April 21 letter to selectmen from Robert Hark, attorney for the Ralph Doering family who owns several parcels in downtown Wiscasset, takes issue with the board’s decision to hold a hearing on the commission’s fate.

Hark's letter states there didn't appear to be grounds for the selectmen to dismiss commissioners. Hark was at the April 6 commission meeting where Edwards' certificate for the fence was disallowed. Hark was concerned that by removing the commission or commissioners, Maine Department of Transportation will escape the commission’s review of the downtown project. The Doerings have filed a motion for a temporary injunction against the project. At a status review conference at the Business and Consumer Court on April 7, no action was taken on the injunction request, and no date was set for a hearing.