HARPSWELL RESIDENTS take a vote during the annual Town Meeting at the Harpswell Community School on Saturday.

HARPSWELL RESIDENTS take a vote during the annual Town Meeting at the Harpswell Community School on Saturday.

HARPSWELL

Residents meet Saturday

Harpswell Coastal Academy will finally have a permanent home as voters approved the charter school’s purchase of the former West Harpswell School property at the Harpswell Town Meeting on Saturday.

Although the purchase and sales agreement between the town and the school was finalized on Feb. 19, the ultimate decision was determined by voters at the meeting.

“We believe we’ve landed in a place that is fair to both sides, a place that serves HCA and the town equally,” said Joseph Grady, president of the board of HCA.

The agreement outlined a $50,000 purchase price for the building. The town leased the building to HCA in July 2013. The school has already paid the town approximately $40,000 in lease payments and will owe $10,000 at closing. HCA will also pay the town $100,000 over the course of 10 years in lieu of tax payments, the total to be paid being $150,000.

“It’s not uncommon for a town to donate and give away free and clear properties to nonprofit organizations that might hold an intangible good to the community of the town, which we believe this does,” said Rick Daniel, chairman of the Selectboard.

Gordon Weil, a former Harpswell selectman, was among many residents who approved of the school and its positive influence on the town. However, Weil suggested that the town enter into a long-term lease with the school at a very low cost, so that the property would still be owned by the town.

“The town of Harpswell itself doesn’t own a whole lot of property, and I thought it was unwise of the town to dispose of any property,” he said.

Other voters expressed similar concern, wondering what would happen to the building if HCA decided to expand or move.

Grady confirmed that the school would be here to stay, though the building is not yet able to house all students at full enrollment.

“We’ve known that from day one,” he added. “But much of our plans involve that particular building remaining our headquarters and a long-term home.”

Phalen Gallagher, a teacher at HCA, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the school’s need to grow in a stable environment.

“Speaking from someone who is in the school every day, we do need a permanent home — students need it, teachers need it. We’re very happy there,” he said.

At the meeting, voters also authorized the town to fund $110,000 to reimburse citizen group Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters Inc. for any legal expenses incurred after Sept. 15, 2014, related to gaining public access to Cedar Beach and Cedar Beach Road.

In 2011, property owners denied public access to Cedar Beach, a historic beach frequented by Harpswell citizens and visitors. CB/CIS, a nonprofit group made up of Harpswell residents and supporters, was formed in 2012 to challenge the ban and allow public access to the area once again.

Although access to Cedar Beach Road was reopened in September under the ruling of Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, seasonal resident Betsy Atkins, who purchased the road from owners Charles and Sally Abrahamson last year, appealed the ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

“The board of selectmen feel that now is the time to provide support for this effort,” said Selectman Elinor Multer, regarding the appeal.

“We have suggested that it is in the town’s interest that we make up to $110,000 available to move forward with this effort to keep the beaches open,” she added.

An estimated litigation cost of $220,000 was approved by the town in 2012, however, the bond was unspent and expired on Dec. 31.

“So the clock starts all over again. That’s why we’re here. We’re here because we’re still committed — perhaps even more so now,” said Mike Helfgott, president of CB/CIS. “We’re so committed to driving this home so that all the people in the town can have access to the beaches.”

Any money that is not spent past December 2017 will be transferred to the town’s unassigned fund balance.

In other action, voters proposed and approved a salary raise for the Harpswell road commissioner.

Daniel noted that road commissioner Ronald Ponziani approached the selectmen and requested a salary of $30,000 for the 2015 year. Ponziani met with the board and the budget advisory committee, where a salary of $20,000 was approved.

“I don’t think there is anybody else I can think of who can do the job effectively as he does,” said resident Sam Alexander of Ponziani. “And I think the amount of work and time involved is underestimated.”

Ellen Shillinglaw of Cundy’s Harbor, a member of the budget advisory committee, noted that the proposed addition of $10,000 to the road commissioner’s salary was declined because it was close to reflecting the salary of a full-time job.

Shillinglaw added that the committee also considered problems that could arise with the higher salary if there was a different road commissioner who did not have the kind of experience that Ponziani had.

However, Alexander and other voters disapproved of the $20,000 salary, agreeing that the road commissioner deserved a higher pay.

Daniel concurred with the public comments about Ponziani, commending Ponziani’s work and dedication to the town.

“The $20,000 is what the selectmen felt comfortable with presenting to you today, but more importantly, we want to make sure that it is known that we appreciate the job that Mr. Ponziani is doing,” he added.

The proposal to raise the road commissioner’s pay from $20,000 to $30,000, which raised the overall salary amount of the elected officials from $129,070 to $139,070, was approved by voters.

In other action …

— VOTERS AUTHORIZED the town to fund $110,000 to reimburse citizen group Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters Inc. for any legal expenses incurred after Sept. 15, 2014, related to gaining public access to Cedar Beach and Cedar Beach Road.

— VOTERS PROPOSED and approved a salary raise for the Harpswell road commissioner.


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