STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — A dispute over private property rights, the actions of the town’s elected officials and a perceived threat to the character of a much loved neighborhood are creating consternation in Stockton Springs.
“There’s an assumption that the town manager and town officials are hiding something,” outgoing Town Manager Joe Hayes said last week. “I have nothing to hide.”
That’s not necessarily what some residents of Middle Street believe. They are afraid that a new seafood business could bring heavy truck traffic to their quiet neighborhood.
“We understand anybody, in this economy, trying to make a living,” said Jerome Weiner. “But it was the process that was used that we’re against.”
At the root of the dispute is local businesswoman Holly Wyman’s desire to move the wholesale lobster business she owns with fiance David Rice. HD & Sons Seafood now is operated out of Main Street Market in Stockton Springs, a business they also run. But Wyman and Rice asked the town last summer to change the zoning of a portion of a residential district so that they could run it out of their waterfront property on School Street. The move would save them money and allow them to expand their business a bit, the couple said this week.
“We’re just looking to run a business and employ people,” Rice said. “This community should be allowed to be built up. It always was a working waterfront.”
Wyman requested that the town hold a special town meeting to vote on the zoning change, which the selectmen agreed to do. She also paid the town $700 to offset costs related to the meeting, including advertising, a moderator and staff overtime.
On Oct. 12, residents voted 46-45 in favor of the change. The special town meeting drew more people than the annual town meetings usually do, according to officials.
Among those present were three of Wyman’s neighbors, Weiner, Paula Lucia and Kristen Johnson, who believe that opponents to the project have not been given a fair shake by the town.
“All the neighbors who are going to be impacted by this are concerned about the quality of life issue,” Johnson said. “What we’re upset about is the town government. We’re not upset about Holly.”
They are planning to attend a Stockton Springs planning board meeting Wednesday night, when the board may take action on Wyman’s request to construct a 40-by-60-foot outbuilding on her property.
“It’s the first time we’ll be able to ask questions,” Weiner said.
The big question has to do with truck traffic. They would like to know how many trucks will be driving through to pick up seafood from HD & Sons, at what time of day and how fast they’ll be moving. The neighbors want their peaceful neighborhood to remain that way.
“We just want the officials to set the regulations up,” Lucia said. “We want them to uphold it.”
According to Wyman and Rice, they own three seafood trucks that will come to the business. Additionally, a tractor-trailer from Canada will stop by once a day during the busy lobster season, July through early November, they said.
“We’re here to support community. We would like community support for this project,” Wyman said.
Another question some of the opposing neighbors have for their officials has to do with whether Wyman and Rice should have been allowed to pay for the special town meeting this fall. They contend that because the couple paid for the meeting, they were allowed to choose when it was held and therefore exerted influence over the outcome.
Voters cast ballots during the meeting, but absentee votes were not allowed — which is usual for an open town meeting, Hayes said.
More residents have requested Freedom of Access Act documents pertaining to the meeting than for any other issue in his eight-year tenure as town manager. He said he disagrees with those who think that the town allowed something that may not be proper.
“If you’re going to ask for a special town meeting, why should the taxpayers pay for it?” he asked. “Special town meetings aren’t free.”
Town attorney Kristin Collins said there are no laws that prohibit what the town did.
“The fact is, under the law, a townsperson or anyone can contribute money towards a municipal expense,” she said.
But Maine Muncipal Association attorney Michael Stultz has a different view.
“Keeping the money suggested inappropriate influence on the choosing of the date and time of the October 12 town meeting,” he wrote in a Nov. 12 letter sent to the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen after the board had requested his opinion. “Municipal officers should consider calling for re-vote of the October 12 meeting; and regardless of whether a second vote is called, the Town should pay for its own election costs.”
Collins said Stultz’s opinion is just that.
“It’s not like it was a ruling from the court,” she said. “At this point, we consider it to be a closed issue.”
Wyman said the idea that there was something improper about the special town meeting left her “at a loss for words.”
“If we were the ones who wanted to have the meeting, we should pay for it,” Rice said.
The public hearing and planning board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, at the lower level of the Stockton Springs town office.