THE WATER TOWER has been unused since at least 1992, when the Navy shut down its fuel depot operations at Mitchell Field in west Harpswell. When the town took possession of the site from the Navy in 2001, it came with the water tower — originally installed in the 1950s — and a pier that is now being demolished. NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD

THE WATER TOWER has been unused since at least 1992, when the Navy shut down its fuel depot operations at Mitchell Field in west Harpswell. When the town took possession of the site from the Navy in 2001, it came with the water tower — originally installed in the 1950s — and a pier that is now being demolished. NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD

HARPSWELL

There won’t be any Harpswell town meeting on Aug. 10.

Though Judge A.M. Horton did not rule on substantial issues in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by Friends of Mitchell Field against the town of Harpswell, Horton rejected the group’s request for a temporary restraining order, while telling the town it couldn’t demolish the water tower at Mitchell Field.

The ruling Thursday was just the latest twist in the water tower saga that has seen a flurry of activity in recent months, while conversation about removing the structure has taken place since at least 2012.

The History

The water tower has been unused since at least 1992, when the Navy shut down its fuel depot operations at Mitchell Field in west Harpswell. When the town took possession of the site from the Navy in 2001, it came with the water tower — originally installed in the 1950s — and a pier that is now being demolished.

Selectmen have sought

authority to remove the water tower at Town Meeting on more than one occasion. Each time a small group of passionate residents have intervened

at the last moment, arguing that the tower could be repaired and used as a water source for Mitchell Field or as a base for cellphone equipment,

bringing much needed mobile coverage to underserved parts of Harpswell.

But studies commissioned by the town projected significant costs with keeping the tower. A 2012 infrastructure study estimated that it would cost $350,000 to repair the tower, versus just $40,000 to demolish it. A later study estimated that it would cost $432,000 to restore the tower.

The Friends of Mitchell Field have questioned those estimates, arguing that those estimates are based on faulty information. They have argued that they could raise private donations and repair the tower for far less, although they did not produce a study backing up that claim.

In 2016, the town set up a water tower task force, which spent a year and a half looking at possible uses for the water tower. The group did not find a cell service company interested in using the tower, and were informed that there were cheaper sources of water than the water tower. Still, some on the task force argued that it remained the best option for providing cellphone service to parts of Harpswell and advocated turning the tower over to a nonprofit that could manage the tower and repurpose it.

That led to the March Town Meeting, where residents were given a choice: They could authorize selectmen to contract with an outside entity to oversee the repair and management of the tower, or have it demolished. After a heated debate, voters opted to destroy the tower.

Though the matter seemed settled, in the weeks following Friends of Mitchell Field began petitioning for another vote, claiming residents made a choice based on misinformation. Among the group’s grievances were they were prevented from handing out materials at Town Meeting, voters were misled about the amount of lead on the water tower and a lack of effort by the task force in reaching out to cell service providers.

“The select board did not mention the character of the proposal: No cost to the town, initial repairs, the breathing room in order to see if there was coverage,” Robert McIntyre, a frequent spokesperson for the group, told the selectmen in April. “Town meeting did not vote on our proposal. They voted on rumors and misinformation without access to the facts.”

Selectmen Rick Daniel and Kevin Johnson have disputed most of their claims.

While the group submitted — and had certified — a petition at the end of April with more than the required number of signatures to compel selectmen to call another Town Meeting for another vote, it was rejected by a 2-1 vote; Selectman David I. Chipman was opposed. Daniel and Johnson chose to vote against accepting it based on the opinion of town attorney Amy Tchao, saying they had the right to reject a petition calling for a redo of a recent vote.

Undeterred, on June 14, Friends of Mitchell Field called their own Town Meeting, relying on a rarely used provision of Maine law to have a notary public issue a warrant for it, set to take place on Aug. 11. After weeks later, selectmen deemed that warrant invalid, again using Tchao’s opinion. A letter explaining her conclusion the warrant is invalid is available on the Harpswell town website.

Dorothy Rosenberg, another frequent spokesperson for the Friends of Mitchell Field, rejected Tchao’s claims at that time.

“After consulting again with our attorney, we are actually quite at a loss to explain where (Tchao’s claims) came from,” she said then. “Our attorney is confused about what statutes she’s citing.”

The group said they would continue with their town meeting, now scheduled for Friday, Aug. 11. The town continued to call the meeting unlawful, arguing that any results would not be binding on the town. It was a stalemate.

“Quite obviously, the only resolution has to be decided by a court if the town is not willing to look for some compromise or mediation,” said Rosenberg.

In court

And a court will weigh in … eventually.

The Friends of Mitchell Field filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon, alleging that the town was wrong to block their petition.

Reached via phone on Thursday, the Friends’ lawyer, Chris Neagle, stated “no comment” and hung up.

The group sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the town from signing a contract for the demolition. That request was rejected by Horton on Thursday morning, who said the town could sign a demolition contract, so long as the work did not occur in the next 30 days.

Horton reserved judgment, however, on the substantive issues in the lawsuit; whether the selectmen acted unreasonably in rejecting the group’s petition or if the warrant was invalid. Because of that, Horton recommended the group not conduct its planned public hearing or town meeting.

McIntyre said Friends of Mitchell Field would fully comply with the judge’s order and would not be holding a public hearing on Saturday or a town meeting on Aug. 10. Instead, the group will host a public discussion about the water tower issue — at the same time and place as the public hearing would have taken place — noon at the Merriconeag Grange.

“We are very eager to exactly honor the wishes of the court,” he said.

The suit will be addressed more fully by the court in August.

On Thursday evening, the selectmen signed a contract with Iseler Demolition for $34,600 to demolish the tower. In compliance with the judge’s order, the town inserted language in the contract ensuring that no demolition would occur prior to Sept. 1. Town Administrator Kristi Eiane estimated that the town had spent $12,000 on legal fees so far on the water tower issue.

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Timeline of 2018 events:

MARCH 10 — At the annual Town Meeting, residents vote to have the Mitchell Field water tower demolished.

APRIL 20 AND 26 — Friends of Mitchell Field submits 435 signatures on their petition to redo the March vote. The town clerk certifies 351, surpassing the 307 signature requirement.

MAY 2 — Harpswell selectmen reject the petition on a 2-1 vote, relying on their town attorney’s advice that they have the authority to reject a petition asking for a redo of a recent town meeting vote.

JUNE 14 — Friends of Mitchell Field circumvent the selectmen and use the petition to have a public notary issue a warrant for an Aug. 11 town meeting to vote on their question.

JUNE 28 — Selectmen deem that warrant invalid, with town attorney Amy Tchao arguing that the Friends of Mitchell Field needed to circulate a second petition calling for a town meeting, not use the previous petition. The selectmen pick Iseler Demolition of Michigan for the demolition, but don’t sign a contract.

JULY 25 — Friends of Mitchell Field file a lawsuit against the town, alleging that the town was wrong to reject their petition. They also seek a restraining order to prevent the selectmen from signing a contract for the demolition of the tower.

JULY 26 — A judge recommends that the Friends of Mitchell Field cancel their town meeting, saying that it will cause confusion. The judge also says the town should not demolish the tower before September so he can consider the rest of the lawsuit. The selectmen sign a contract with Iseler Demolition for the demolition of the tower, to occur no earlier than Sept. 1.

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