Wiscasset selectmen voted at Wiscasset Community Center Tuesday night to reject a consent judgment with Maine Department of Transportation.
The nine-page judgment would have required MDOT to seek a certificate of appropriateness from the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Commission to demolish the Haggett building at 36 Water St. If the commission did not grant the COA, MDOT could have appealed to the town’s Board of Appeals, and if unsuccessful, appealed in court or abandoned that parking lot portion of the Wiscasset Downtown and Route 1 Improvement Project.
If the town had accepted the consent judgment, MDOT would not have had to seek any additional COA applications and could proceed with the downtown project without submitting to any other town rule. MDOT maintains state law does not require it to follow town ordinances, and further, that the historic preservation ordinance is not a zoning ordinance.
MDOT’s concessions to the town would have included MDOT accepting responsibility for maintaining and operating all the traffic lights in the project, and the already installed traffic signal at Route 27. MDOT would have paid to install sidewalk lights that are part of the project, and the town would have paid operations and maintenance. Town attorney Peter Murray said the town concluded the cost would have been “pennies.” MDOT also would have agreed to resurface and stripe the municipal parking lot behind Treats, if the town granted permission.
Coming into the meeting, Chair Judy Colby said that based on discussions in executive session, she believed the consent judgment would pass.
Murray and John Shumadine explained why they chose to narrow the scope of the consent judgment to the item they felt they had a legal chance to win, which regarded the preservation ordinance and the pending demolition of the Haggett building. “We didn’t have legal standing to address the issue of parking on Route 1,” Murray said. “The state controls Route 1, and didn’t really need the town’s permission to remove the parking. We thought we could require them to follow our zoning ordinance, even though MDOT’s position was that the Historic Preservation Ordinance isn’t a zoning ordinance at all. That’s why we focused on that issue.”
In response to residents’ questions, Murray said Option One, which included some Route 1 parking, was no longer on the table because MDOT found there were problems with compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some in attendance disputed that, saying other engineers found Option One could have been brought into compliance with the ADA.
“We’re not wanting to defend MDOT,” Murray said. “But having seen all the evidence, we believe that MDOT had a point with that contention.”
Initially, MDOT would have accepted some parallel parking on Route 1, but when Gov. Paul LePage rejected the idea, the town offered to send a delegation to discuss it with him. Murray said LePage refused to meet with the town’s delegation until after the litigation ended. At that point, the consent judgment would be signed and it was unclear if LePage would have considered the idea.
Said Murray, “And nothing in the agreement would prevent them from moving forward with the project unless a court tells them they can’t.”
After hearing from numerous citizens, most who favored continuing litigation, some of the selectmen spoke. Katharine Martin-Savage said she feared businesses would close if the parking in front of shops was eliminated. “It’s basic Economics 101,” she said. “If you take away parking, Wiscasset will become a ghost town.”
Ben Rines Jr. discussed the receipt of an offer of $75,000 from the Doering family to pay for legal counsel. He said he was personally uneasy with the proposal. “If the townspeople are willing to accept it, we should take it and be gracious about it,” he said.
Bob Blagden said he had hoped the scope of the legal issue would have been much broader, to cover the entire MDOT project.
Colby said it was a hard problem. “I have a real problem taking money from a gentleman who named the town of Wiscasset in a lawsuit,” she said. “It looks shady, it looks fishy, and I don’t like the perception Wiscasset will be giving other towns in similar situations.”
Jeff Slack did not speak publicly on the issue. Colby and Slack voted for the consent judgment. Rines, Blagden and Martin-Savage voted against it.
Rines immediately moved that a special town meeting be called as quickly as possible to decide whether or not to accept the funds from the Doerings. Town Manager Marian Anderson said she would issue a public notice and schedule a town meeting as soon as possible. In the meantime, the lawyers were directed to continue their work in attempting to obtain a permanent injunction against the demolition of the Haggett building, and to try to bring MDOT to the table to renegotiate the downtown plan.
A late-hour call Tuesday night to MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot was not immediately returned.