BELFAST, Maine — City councilors spent a long time at Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting debating whether to give three parcels of land in the Belfast Business Park to a former elected official in exchange for developing a $2 million food processing facility.
The council ultimately voted 4-1 to grant former Councilor Jan Anderson’s proposed business Coastal Farms and Food Processing the option to purchase the property for $1, with those in favor citing property taxes and job creation as two reasons.
“The business park was built with specific projects in mind,” Councilor Marina DeLune said. “This particular project was exactly the type envisioned when the city built it.”
But not all councilors, nor all attendees, were in favor of what they termed an unprecedented decision to give away land in a park where others have had to pay around $25,000 per parcel. There also was disagreement about whether there was the appearance of favoritism because Anderson served on the council until 2009.
“People are looking at this, saying this is a former city councilor asking the City the council to do something for her,” said Councilor Nancy Hamilton, who voted against granting the option. “I think the perception of the community is really important. I’ve had a couple of constituents come up and say, ‘I’ve got a dollar. Give me $100,000 worth of city property.’”
Two weeks ago, Anderson came before the councilors to describe her vision for a $2 million food processing, storage and distribution facility at the business park. She said that she already has commitments from two regional businesses to move into the center once it is constructed, and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will guarantee up to 80 percent of her business loan.
The option will remain valid for nine months, after which the company can extend it for three months for $5,000 a month.
“The parties acknowledge that the business plans and financing arrangements of the Vendee are not yet fully formed, and acknowledge that the Option Price of $1 reflects the attractiveness of economic development in terms of actual building investment as well as the development of new jobs,” the option read in part.
City Manager Joe Slocum said that although the city would not be paid the approximate $75,000 purchase price for the parcels, the estimated annual taxes on a $2 million investment would bring in about $36,000 annually.
“Plain and simple math, it’s a tremendous investment,” said Councilor Roger Lee. “We’re going to receive from their tax revenues a huge amount from this small amount we’re investing … I’d take that investment. Anybody who didn’t is a fool.”
That wasn’t a unanimous opinion.
Belfast Realtor Fran Riley stood during the public comments portion of the council meeting and read a letter that she had written to the editors of local newspapers that had been published in the Republican Journal. In it, she described her concerns that City Manager Joe Slocum was actively endorsing giving “valuable taxpayer owned real estate” to a private developer.
“These lots belong to the city, that is, the taxpayers of the city,” she said. “Is it reasonable that the city manager and city councilors decide to give away valuable real estate? Shouldn’t we taxpayers have a say[?] … I urge the council either sell these lots to Jan and company for fair market value or, better yet, make them available to the market place again.”
After the councilors voted, Riley said that it was difficult to speak against such a “great project.”
“I like Jan. I hope it’s successful,” she said. “I just think the precedent the City Council set was completely inappropriate.”