MILBRIDGE, Maine — In two separate votes Monday night, more than 165 Milbridge residents upheld a building moratorium that was enacted last June for multiunit housing.
In the first vote, which would have rescinded the entire moratorium, the vote was 65 yes, 100 no.
The second vote, which would have excluded from the moratorium Mano en Mano’s six-family housing unit proposed for Wyman Road, also was defeated but by a much smaller margin. The vote was 72 yes, 82 no.
The votes pave the way for a federal lawsuit filed by Mano en Mano against the town to proceed. A hearing on the suit had been scheduled for Friday, Oct. 2, but a continuance was granted earlier Monday.
If the town had voted to rescind the moratorium, the lawsuit would have been moot.
The court will set a new hearing date later this week.
The lawsuit is based on alleged violations of the federal Fair Housing Act. Mano en Mano was using $1.6 million in federal grant funds to construct the housing unit for agricultural workers.
Town officials have maintained all summer that the reason for the moratorium was to give the town’s planning board time to come up with appropriate zoning ordinances to deal with such large projects.
Mano en Mano, however, charged discrimination since the $1.6 million project was to serve local agricultural workers.
At one point, however, when a resident began speaking about how much the Mano en Mano project will cost the community, saying the town already was paying $350,000 a year for English language learning and referring to the agricultural workers as “those people,” the audience shouted him down, saying, “That’s bigotry.”
During a break while ballots were being counted, one resident said he believed that most residents were concerned about such a large project’s impact on the community and were not discriminatory or racist.
“We just don’t want skyscrapers here,” Richard Duncanson said. “We want the character of the town to stay the same.”
Duncanson added, “I don’t care who the housing is built for or who lives here. We just love our community the way it is.”
On hand to answer residents’ questions were Milbridge’s attorneys Thomas Russell and Fred Costlow. Russell represents the town in day-to-day affairs while Costlow is handling the lawsuit.
April Bentley was representing Mano en Mano.
Russell confirmed that since the lawsuit was filed, HUD has initiated its own investigation into Fair Housing Act violations with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Russell explained that a risk the town was taking was that HUD could determine that a violation had occurred and ask for all federal grant funds that Milbridge had received in the past — a whopping $1.25 million — be repaid.
He said there was also a chance that the town could be, in essence, blackballed from receiving federal grants for years into the future.
The town also defeated an article that would have forced the selectmen to hold all meetings after 6 p.m. Town Manager Lewis Pinkham said that the article, which was requested by a resident, would not allow the board to hold emergency meetings.