Debate over the fate of an old Milbridge schoolhouse winds up in court

Posted March 14, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.
Last modified March 16, 2012, at 1:14 p.m.

MILBRIDGE, Maine — A contentious debate over the fate of a circa-1900 former schoolhouse in the Washington County community of Milbridge has prompted a lawsuit to be filed by those who wanted to see the old building preserved.

By a margin of 14 votes — 110 yes, 96 no — the green light was given at a special town meeting on Feb. 13 to plans to replace the building that now houses the town office, police department and ambulance service, as well as the town’s library, which is shoehorned into an addition built 50 years ago.

The $578,000 project is dependent on approval of a $258,000 community development block grant. Town Manager Lewis Pinkham recently submitted that grant request for review by the state’s Office of Economic Development. If approved, the town will put up an additional $320,000, with $160,000 coming from a 15-year loan, $65,000 from the library’s endowment, $60,000 from surplus funds and $35,000 from a building reserve fund.

The suit filed by Milbridge resident Nicholas Giusti in superior court in Machias against “the inhabitants of the Town of Milbridge” claims the town meeting was flawed by “procedural irregularities.” Giusti claims there was no advance public notice of the meeting and that no public hearing on the proposed construction project preceded the special town meeting.

In his complaint, Giusti also claims debate on the proposal was ended prematurely, before Giusti and others had an opportunity to fully express their opinions on the project. Giusti also claims ballot clerks should have been appointed or elected to oversee the counting of the secret vote ballots.

The complaint alleges the procedural irregularities should render void the election of the meeting’s moderator and passage of the article approving the new construction.

The legal action requests a trial and also asks that the court order the project not go forward pending judicial consideration of Giusti’s complaint.

The complaint is now under review by the town’s legal counsel, Thomas Russell of Bangor.

Russell said Wednesday he’s in the process of drafting a response to Giusti’s complaint and expects to file that response as soon as Friday, March 16.

“I don’t think [the complaint] has any merit,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “The vote was taken. Some of the procedural issues were unfortunate, but not fatal. People had their say about it.”

Town Manager Lewis Pinkham said Wednesday he agrees that there is no merit to Giusti’s complaint.

“I don’t think there are any grounds there now,” Pinkham said.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story misspelled the name of the man suing the town of Milbridge following a special town meeting held to determine the fate of an old schoolhouse. In his suit, Nicholas Giusti, not Giust, claims the meeting was flawed by “procedural irregularities.” Giusti said the lawsuit has nothing to do with whether the schoolhouse should be demolished or not. The suit seeks a new meeting and vote.

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