HARPSWELL — For the second consecutive year, Town Meeting voters authorized the town to seek a review of its historical border with Brunswick.

But unlike last year, voters on March 20 agreed to help pay for the effort, authorizing $2,500 to assist with legal fees and lobbying expenses to persuade the Legislature to change a 12-year-old decision that’s now a state law.

Revival of the border dispute along Route 123 was one of the 65 warrant articles decided during a relatively fast-paced business meeting that concluded in just over five hours – about three hours faster than last year.

Voters also approved new sign, animal control and blasting ordinances. In addition, they approved a measure allowing smaller lot sizes and density bonuses for workforce housing subdivisions, an effort proponents said would stem the exodus of younger families from the town amid steadily rising home prices.

They also ratified a budget of just over $4 million. The spending plan is nearly $39,000 less than last year’s despite a 2 percent pay increase for non-union municipal employees and a $219,000 outlay for the West Harpswell School.

Voters narrowly approved keeping the school open during a special referendum on March 9.

According to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, the 2010 budget could represent a 1.8 percent decrease from 2009, and a drop in the town’s property tax rate from $6.19 to $6.07 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The precise drop in the tax rate will be determined when the School Administrative District 75 budget is ratified in June.

Meanwhile, the West Harpswell School issue rippled to voters’ selection of a representative on the SAD 75 board of directors. Dorothy Carrier, a five-term member of the board and part of the 8-1 majority that voted to close the school last year, was unseated by 57-year-old Linda Hall, 580-501.

Hall ran in favor of keeping West Harpswell School open.

Voters also re-elected James Henderson to the Board of Selectmen. Henderson, 68, the board chairman, defeated 34-year-old challenger Alison Hawkes of Cundy’s Harbor, 640-462.

Also during secret-ballot voting, residents approved Harpswell’s perennially contentious appropriation to the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, 639-419. The town’s 2010 library allocation will be close to $120,000.

Unlike last year, voters approved most town expenditures with little debate. Most discussion came on an article that included 2 percent pay hikes for the tax collector and town clerk.

Carrier, speaking from the floor, argued against the increases and introduced an amendment that would’ve frozen the salaries at 2009 levels.

Hawkes said some residents couldn’t afford the increase.

“I see that our general assistance is up and so are the number of unpaid taxes,” she said. “That tells me that people are struggling to pay their bills.”

But Selectman Elinor Multer said she supported the increase for all non-union town employees because union employees had similar increases built into their contracts.

“I don’t like the message it sends when union employees get a 2 percent raise, but non-union workers get zero,” Multer said.

‘Clam Wars’ border

Much of the floor debate came prior to the decision to revisit the border issue.

Last year residents voted 93-61 to challenge a 1998 decision that surrendered about 30 acres of intertidal land to Brunswick. The 1998 decision followed what residents often refer to as the “Clam Wars” between Brunswick and Harpswell. 

Last year’s effort, spearheaded by the citizen group called the Carrying Place Assembly, failed to persuade members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government committee to endorse a bill that would have redrawn the border to coincide with the one that the group claims existed in 1738.

The group is expected to make a similar case by presenting additional historical evidence.

However, opponents questioned the group’s ability to work the historical data – much of it 272-year-old maps, documents and clam leases – into a convincing argument.

Resident Jim Knight said he didn’t fully understand the group’s argument despite many attempts.

“If I don’t understand it well, there’s going to be a lot of other people who don’t either,” Knight said.

Karen Blake, meanwhile, said settling the issue would likely be futile and costly, both in terms of money and Harpswell’s reputation.

“We need to step away from our reputation as being fighters,” Blake said. “We have to look like reasonable people.”

Amy Haible, of the Carrying Place Assembly, disagreed.

“I find (Blake’s) comments interesting coming from one of the most argumentative people I’ve ever met,” Haible, a former selectman, said. “There’s something honorable about admitting you’ve made a mistake and correcting it.”

Gordon Weil, one of the selectmen who helped broker the 1998 settlement, said the Carrying Place analysis was questionable. He added that the reason the two sides came to an agreement in 1998 was because Harpswell had been advised by its attorney that continuing would be costly without any guarantee of success.

Sam Alexander, a member of the group, said residents approved the settlement after they’d been subjected to “fear-mongering” by lawyers on both sides.

“I don’t think embarrassment or reputation is at stake at all,” Alexander said. “It’s about respect.”

Voters evidently agreed and a authorized the review with a clear majority.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]

Carrying Place Assembly members erect a sign on Route 123 in Brunswick on March 20, in the territory they claim should be returned to Harpswell. Property owner Karen Marlin granted permission for the sign, which was placed the same day Harpswell Town Meeting agreed to spend $2,500 to pursue the border dispute.

Sidebar Elements

Voters raise their orange cards to indicate support for a warrant article during Harpswell Town Meeting on Saturday, March 20, at Harpswell Islands School.

Town Meeting by the numbers

Here are major appropriations in Harpswell’s $4 million 2010 budget, and corresponding changes from 2009:

• General government (includes salaries of town employees): $1.2 million (0.1 increase)

• Public Works: $861,967 (0.84 percent decrease)

• Protection & safety (includes law enforcement): $861,967 (6.7 percent decrease)

• Health & welfare (includes social services): $46,230 (10.8 percent increase)

• Cultural & recreational (includes library allocations): $225,854 (2.29 percent increase)

• Mitchell Field: $8,500 (41.7 percent increase)

• Special projects: $37,500 (18.2 percent decrease)

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