NEW GLOUCESTER – New Gloucester residents narrowly defeated a measure that would have constructed a $2.4 million water distribution system in the Upper Village along Route 202.

By a vote of 116 to 101, residents at a special town meeting held Monday night at the Memorial School voted against erecting a well and pump station on Bald Hill Road to pipe fresh water to 20 properties that have contaminated wells along the distribution system.

The vote came after six years of design work by town and state officials as well as the New Gloucester Water District, which would have overseen the project. The public was asked to weigh in to approve the expenditure. The project would have been partly funded by Rural Development, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had awarded $1.67 million in grants and loans to the town in November to build the system. The town had planned to bond the remaining amount of the project, which would have cost local residents $990,000, plus interest.

After Monday’s vote, Town Manager Sumner Field IV was thinking of next steps.

“We’re going to sit down and go through what happened and try to get some feedback on what could have been done differently, and proceed from there,” he said.

Field said the 20 Upper Village residents now dealing with benzene- or salt-contaminated wells – the result of faulty gasoline tanks and an uncovered sand-and-salt shed once operated in the area by the state – will continue to be supplied reverse osmosis filtration systems by the town as has been the practice since 1990, when the contamination was discovered.

Field said there were several reasons why the measure failed Monday night.

“People didn’t want their taxes to increase,” he said. “They don’t want the town to change, [which] I think are some things that are shortsighted. But we want to sit down with some folks and get some direct feedback and see what we could have done better.”

The town could have benefited from the federal funding, which may or may not be in place should the town further pursue the project, he said.

“We have three funding agencies, so there are different time frames,” Field said. “It’ll take some time to talk with our funding sources and see what their parameters are. I don’t think anyone really thought it would fail so we need to talk with them, find out how much time we do have, if we have any time, and put together a plan to talk to folks and see where we went wrong, and if we can correct it or make changes. We will do that and proceed some more.”

According to longtime Selectman Steve Libby, Monday’s meeting had excellent turnout, which indicated the will of the people.

“I think this is the 30th town meeting I’ve attended and I’ve served 15 years on the Board of Selectmen,” he said. “Getting out more information? Yes. We can always do better. Would it have changed the vote? No. When New Gloucester has 217 people show up at a meeting, more information out there wouldn’t have changed the vote. People spoke and they voted no for a variety of reasons. More information would not have changed that.”

Libby believes the main reason people voted against the proposal was the mandate that residents along the proposed water distribution system who have uncontaminated wells would have had to connect to the system. He said most voters balked at the idea of forcing those with good water to hook up.

“I’m obviously disappointed with the vote, but I also understand the major concern that came out last night, which was the mandatory hook-ups,” Libby said Tuesday. “I understand their concerns but unfortunately it was a requirement from Rural Development.”

He said the federal agency wanted New Gloucester to force additional homes onto the system, which would have imposed annual water rates of between $350 to $400 for ongoing maintenance and operation, to help pay for the system and to prevent cross-contamination should the system be called upon by the fire department during an emergency.

A smaller system designed for the 20 homes may not have provided the amount of water needed for fighting fires and covered household water use at the same time. A larger system would, Libby said.

“If you only have the 20 contaminated properties hooked up, you’ve only got 20 customers. And Rural Development wanted the mandatory hookups, which brought it up to 48 properties, which would help pay for the yearly operating cost of the system,” Libby said.

One of the residents who took issue with the mandatory hook-ups was Patrick Gwinn, who spoke out Monday night during public comment as well as a public hearing on Jan. 7.

“At last night’s meeting, I heard concern about the freedom to purchase or not purchase water. I think for me that resonated,” Gwinn said Tuesday. “I think if the town or state are culpable in the contamination of the groundwater in that area, then there’s a responsibility for those entities, which for the town is partly me [and other town taxpayers], to make good and get these guys clean water.

“But I didn’t feel it was necessary to do that at the expense of the other people in the district who don’t need the water, that would be forced to be connected. And so that’s where it went sour with me.”

On Tuesday, people that were opposed to the project called Libby to discuss what comes next.

“I’m very encouraged by the number of people that have contacted me on how can we get something in place to take care of those properties,” Libby said. “It was depressing, and usually the day after [a failed vote] you’re second-guessing yourself and asking what should we have done different.

“Instead the reaction I got from people was, what can we do to make this happen, and this was from people who were at the podium saying vote no because of the mandatory hook-ups or whatever reason,” he continued. “They’re in favor of the project but there were some issues that they had that caused them to vote no. So I was very encouraged by our citizenry that they were reaching out that much.”

Libby said the federal funding was a boon to the project, and that New Gloucester residents would be hit with an estimated 20 percent increase in their property taxes if the town had to fund the project solo. With the vote, the federal money is up in the air.

Libby said the water district’s board of trustees would meet soon to discuss its options and that the town planner would call Rural Development to see “how much wiggle room we have before we lose the money, because there are many projects across the country that are waiting. So it is our understanding we could have a little bit of time here if we’re moving forward.

“Hopefully they’ll be patient because we’re walking a line here to make this happen.”

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