BERWICK, Maine — Selectmen voted 3-2 Wednesday night to sign a 75-year lease with Bateman Partners to renovate the Old Berwick High School into affordable housing units.
Selectmen Marcia Elton, Chairman James Ramsey and Vice-Chairman Joe Chambers voted in favor of signing the lease, while Selectmen Bob Crichton and Eleanor Murphy voted against the proposal.
Murphy said she didn’t feel comfortable leasing land around a municipal building that would not allow for further development of that municipal building beyond its existing footprint.
Murphy was referencing the Berwick police station, of which 5,000 square density feet includes the building and some area around that, which, according to the lease, has been excluded in the ground lease that was approved.
Murphy said 75 years was large passage of time and in that time, expansion of the police station, or the building next to the police station, may be needed beyond its already existing footprint.
“Seventy-five years is a long time,” said Murphy.
Chambers, who had allegedly told many residents that he was on the fence with the issue, said he wanted to hear what everyone had to say and that he was happy to talk to every resident who called him or talked with him before the meeting. He said it was the first issue where he received calls from residents, asking him questions and being concerned with a town-related issue.
In the end, Chambers said he could not go against the original special town meeting vote in 2009 that authorized the selectmen to enter into a 75-year ground lease. He said the vote of more than 1,500 residents in favor of the project was something he could not ignore.
“For an elected official to ignore 1,500 votes is just something I couldn’t do,” said Chambers after the meeting.
Before selectmen voted on the issue, presentations were made by the town’s attorney, Alan Shepard, and Bateman Partners LLC representation Ron Ward.
In Shepard’s presentation, he said that according to an individual within the Brownfields department sector of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the town would not be required, on the state level or national, to continue remediation of most of the contaminants on the building. The only contaminant Shepard was unsure of was PCPs, because their remediation is handled by a separate department within the EPA, which had not gotten back to him in time for the meeting.
In the next presentation, Ward laid out the possible liability that may ensure for the town if the selectmen were to vote against signing the lease. One of the major risks for the town, according to Ward, would be the recouping of both lost soft and hard investments made by Bateman on the project for remediation, loss of income and attorney fees, among other costs. The total losses were estimated at totaling possibly more than $1 million.
The reason for this possible liability, according to Ward, was because the town, in his and Bateman’s legal opinion, entered into a legal agreement for a 75-year ground lease on the property.
“I’m not here to issue threats toward the town,” said Ward. “I appreciate the opportunity to speak in front of the public.”
The board will meet for its regularly scheduled business meeting on Sept. 6 at 6: 30 p.m.
© 2011 the Foster’s Daily Democrat
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