‘This meeting is historic’

Thomaston citizens create park ‘in perpetuity’, endorse fire/EMS station, narrowly approve land sale for clinic

Civil debate is punctuated by laughter and calls for points of order
Fri, 06/16/2023 - 6:45am

    THOMASTON — It was but four votes that separated the yays and nayes for the sale of 1.5 acres of town-owned Thomaston Green land, but citizens ultimately signaled approval for a new Knox Clinic community health center to be allowed there. The approval, however, was accompanied by much debate and procedural adjustments at a town meeting that also included passing an amendment that created a new town park.

    The latter was not on the warrant, but a resident made the proposal, standing at the front of the room and writing it out on a large piece of cardboard for townspeople, who ultimately voted to endorse the measure.

    More than 350 Thomaston citizens had poured into the municipal building just before 6 p.m. June 13, for the 2023 Annual Town Meeting.

    While the warrant comprised 39 articles, most residents were there for but two reasons: To vote whether to appropriate a spot on the Thomaston Green for a new fire and EMS station, and to endorse or oppose selling a portion of the Green to Mid Coast Health Net, the nonprofit that operates the Knox Clinic and which hopes to build a community health center, also on the Green.

    In the end, and following first a vote with a show of hands — too close to call at an initial count of 154 to 146 — citizens called for a paper ballot box vote on the land sale.

    That meant a pause in the proceedings in order for citizens to file to the front of the room and individually cast their private votes with pen and paper. That resulted in a final tally of 159 to 155 in favor of the sale to Mid Coast Health Net.

    It was a classic town meeting, where civility reigned, albeit occasional exasperation and calls for points of order, and many affectionate laughs. Citizens were in rare New England form, ready to address the municipal warrant in front of them, just as their grandparents and great-grandparents had done over the past centuries.

    And the room was at capacity, with firefighters carefully assessing the growing crowd. Would the meeting have to be moved or adjourned?

    But everyone got in, with the Select Board and committee members sitting behind a table on the stage while voters filled chairs, stood lining the walls, sat on the steps close to the stage, and even spilled out the back door that was opened for air circulation.

    Town Clerk Melissa Stevens welcomed the town.

    “Hi, everybody,” she said. “Thank you so much for being here tonight. I know it’s hot and I appreciate your patience. We are starting 24 minutes later than we have planned but I think that we need to give a hand to our ballot clerks because they did a hell of a job.”

    That earned a round of applause before Stevens thanked election official Michael Mayo for his years of service, noting, “his brother before him, and his father before him.”

    She then swore in two Select Board members, Chris Rector and Peter Lammert, before handing the floor to Moderator Fred Newcomb, of Owls Head.

    “Be nice and be kind,” she urged Thomaston voters.

    Newcomb laid out the ground rules, and commenced with Article 3, “Shall the Town vote to adopt the revised conceptual plan of the Thomaston Green for all land south of William King Street as well as the tree-lined esplanade from Route 1 to be reserved as park space?”

    The accompanying explanation said: “consensus developed at a series of public meetings regarding the Thomaston Green was a desire to reserve open space/parks on a portion of the property with other portions held for development. Any additional development must be approved by the voters.”

    As Newcomb opened the floor to a motion, Thomaston resident Kathleen Norton, said, “I have a motion to amend Article 3.”

    “What is it?” a citizen shouted.

    “I’m showing it to you right now,” said Norton, writing it on a large board.

    “Read it!” another person said.

    “Shall the Town vote to adopt the revised conceptual plan of the Thomaston Green for all land south of William King Street, as well as the 100-foot-wide tree-lined esplanade from Route1. to be public open space recreational use in perpetuity and said land will become known as Thomaston Green Park,” said Newcomb.

    Discussion ensued, focusing on the definition of “in perpetuity”,  the ability to obtain state and federal grants for a park, and the general use of the land, if it were to be a park.

    Norton referenced the historic use of the 15-acre parcel, on which sat the Maine State Prison for 178 years, before the prison was moved to Warren in 2002.

    “Redeeming the land to allow all of us to make peace with the past by making it a permanent park for community gatherings, a local and regional destination, which no doubt will attract business to the downtown district,” she said. “That’s an economic vision for the future.”
    She said the town has waited 18 years to decide if it is a park.
    “This land belongs to you,” she told the town, earning a round of applause.
    Citizens questioned whether the amendment would affect the fire department and Knox Clinic proposals, both of which involved appropriating some of the Green.
    Norton replied no.
    “Article 3 only touches the land south of William King Street,” that, “unfinished road that bisects the Green right now. What we’re talking about now is making everything south towards the river and the tree-lined esplanade, which is 100-feet-wide, a permanent park.”
    Newcomb replied to a question concerning perpetuity. 
    “The question was,” he said, “what does perpetuity mean. I think the common understanding is that means forever. Permanent.”
    Citizens then overwhelmingly voted to move the amendment to a vote, but not without talking again about “in perpetuity” as well as the park’s name. The town had been advised by the town attorney  a year ago not to use the phrase “in perpetuity” said one woman.
    “Why not?” asked another.
    A man took the microphone and said: “If she knew we couldn’t have ‘in perpetuity,’ why did we even vote on it. Why didn’t you [town officials] speak up before that? I voted because I thought it sounded like a good idea that we would have control of said public space. I thought it would be a good thing to last for years and years. If we can’t have that, then why didn’t you say so before.”
    That remark earned applause and townspeople moved the vote after clarifying that although Green is 15.5 acres, the park as proposed by Norton would be five acres.


    Article 4: A new Fire/EMS Station

    Thomaston moved more swiftly with Article 4 that asked voters to reserve a parcel of land at the Thomaston Green no more than 2.7 acres in size and having frontage on Route 1 as a home for a new fire and EMS station.

    Townspeople questioned whether other parcels had been considered in the site search.

    Architects had looked at additional locations, and conferred with a subcommittee consisting of firefighters and EMS personnel, said Select Board member Bill Hahn.

    While some citizens opposed having a fire station built on a portion of the Green on Route 1, citing traffic and emergency vehicles attempting to make their way through the traffic, others said the town already owned the Green, making the placement of a station there more financially attractive.

    “People have proposed putting the fire station at the other end of town, over by Walmart,” said Shlomit Auciello. “That’s a mess. Land there is very expensive. Most of the people in town don’t live anywhere near there. And when they built Walmart, and a traffic study was requested, and traffic remediation was requested, we unfortunately did not ask them to consider the impact of that growing shopping area on traffic here in downtown Thomaston.”

    She said traffic never stops downtown.

    “This [the Green] is a place where we can do what we want with the land,” she said. “We can make it right.... I don’t know how architects get paid. Maybe they get paid by the square foot. All I know is we need some square feet for our fire department.”

    Fire Chief Mike Mazzeo said the reason there are no designs, yet, is because the architect needed a site before knowing what to design.

    “We have looked, and he has looked,” said Mazzeo. “In this area, there is nothing that fronts Main Street, where it should be. And a bonus is, we already own the land. There’s nothing else that anybody has been able to identify that is a viable piece of property in the center of town. The reason we need to be in the center of town, or as close to the center of town as possible, is that’s where people live. That’s where the highest risk population lives. That’s also where your firefighters are. When they respond from home, they have to go get the trucks, get in the trucks and respond to your emergency.”

    If the fire station was on the other end of town, where nobody lives, he said, firefighters and EMS would have to travel distance in private vehicles in the, “same traffic that we’re talking about, get in the fire trucks, and respond back.”

    Which, he said, results in delayed response to medical and fire emergencies. The Green is the only piece of property as close to the center of town that is available and already under town ownership, he said.

    That marked the end of the discussion, and the town voted.

    “The ayes have it,” said Newcomb.


    Article 5, the Knox Clinic

    Article 5 drew heat as proponents and opponents of the proposal to sell 1.5 acres for $52,655 per acre of the Green fronting Route 1 to Mid Coast Health Net for the purpose of constructing a community health center.

    Just as soon as Newcomb read the article and opened the floor to a motion, Thomaston resident Emily Maniselto proposed tabling the article indefinitely for future consideration at a secret ballot referendum.

    “It was made clear at the public hearing on June 3 that many Thomaston residents feel rushed, confused and excluded from this process,” she said. “Additionally, because this vote is being held at 6 p.m. on a weeknight, many Thomaston voters are not here.” 

    Her motion to table the article’s consideration in favor of a secret referendum earned applause, but Newcomb ruled the motion to be out of order.

    “State law gives the Select Board the authority to post a warrant,” he said. “That warrant, once posted, must be complete. Under exceptional circumstances; for example, the Covid epidemic, [with] an assembly of this size, we could not have convened it because of the space requirements. So we would have had to reschedule the meeting. That is not a situation that pertains here.”

    He said the selectmen have the authority to schedule the meeting, “And we are here and we are going to carry out the warrant.”

    He said the article could be defeated and brought up at a later time through a citizen initiative, or otherwise.

    Another woman said she wanted to make a motion to appeal Newcomb’s position, for an opportunity for, “the entire town to participate.”

    Newcomb said she was entitled to appeal the outcome of a vote, “but the ruling that I made on the propriety of the motion is not appealable.”

    Seth Silverton, Thomaston resident, said real estate and politics is a toxic mix.

    “From my perspective, the town has not handled this wonderfully,” he said. “It could have been handled better. When opposing viewpoints found their way onto the town website, in opposition to the citizen’s initiative in the last election that we had, that’s when I lost faith in this process.”

    He proposed having a fire station on the Green, but stop business development, “right there. And I am going to vote no on Article 5.”

    Another woman said she liked Emily’s motion, but said it should apply to the fire station, as well, that all the town should have a vote.

    Another citizen said she was there because it was an important meeting.

    “It’s not necessarily convenient for me at 6 p.m., or 7 p.m. to be here, because usually I take a nap at 4 or 5 p.m. and when you get to my age, you’d probably do the same,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to get the whole town here at once particular time whether morning, noon or night.”

    Others also supported the motion to table the warrant article and vote on it by secret ballot.

    “How many young people do you see here,” asked one man. “We’re all middle-aged or more,” a comment that earned laughter. 

    Joan Sunburn said she had lived in Thomaston her whole life.

    “I’m one of the minority,” she said. “The thing is, this meeting is historic. We have never had as many people that I can ever recall. If we don’t vote tonight, when would we get another vote? This town desperately needs this health clinic, and for it to be turned down by the majority of citizens instead of the minority, that’s the way it is.”

    For another 20 minutes, the debate continued, with some agreeing they endorsed a health clinic, “just not on the Green,” while others endorsed selling the land to the health clinic.

    “Has there been a traffic study done,” asked one woman, with the clinic proposal.

    “There has not been a traffic study done,” a town official said.

    Peter Jenks asked the citizens to hold their applause for the sake of civility, and reduce the potential for intimidation.

    Some wanted to know if alternative sites for the health clinic had been explored.

    Meredith Batley, executive director of the Knox Clinic, told the town that she put the proposal before the town, “because I care about this community.”

    She said: “Those prison walls witnessed real trauma and I want to propose that we transform a small corner of the space of that Green to one of healing and community connections. Personally, I believe it is a perfect win-win.”

    She said that a clause would be added to the real estate contract that should the clinic want to sell its acreage, it would give the town the right to first refusal.

    Batley also said the Knox Clinic would be open to putting a roof-top cafe on the clinic, “or other revenue-generating options, if that is an interest.”

    “Our objective is not to block the view,” she said. “Our goal is to fit into the natural setting as allowed by the planning board in a cooperative, transparent process.”

    A resident asked if the clinic would have public restrooms.

    Batley said the clinic plans incorporated a few of client toilets on the first floor, “one of which we hope to have available from the exterior of the building.... I believe that there is every possibility to keep that open to the public as long as the public treats it with the respect that it needs.”

    A motion arrived to move the question to a vote, which earned an audible no. but Newcomb presented to the townspeople the option to cease discussing Article 5. As pink cards rose overhead, he said: “That’s close. We are going to count the votes.”

    “Keep your hands up,” said Newcomb. “Not just a little up.”

    The motion to call the vote resulted in 215 to 75, sending Article 5 itself to a vote.

    But just after Newcomb read Article 5 again out loud to the assembled, citizens said he never asked if the room wanted a paper ballot vote. Newcomb countered that he had specified that process at the beginning of the town meeting, and proceeded to call for a vote by raised hands. 

    Town staff admonished those whose arms were starting to droop. “You've got to keep your cards up,” ordered one ballot clerk.

    The raised hands on the vote resulted in 154 for the property sale and 146 against, a close enough count for citizens to call for a secret ballot vote.

    Newcomb said if seven voters challenged the vote, they would hold the vote again. Seven voters did, and the town staff began setting the room up for a written ballot box vote. Citizens lined up, and settled into chatting with neighbors while they waited for their turn.

    More than 45 minutes later, Newcomb announced the vote, 159 yes; 155, no. 

    Then, the majority of the public filtered out of the meeting room, leaving the remaining 32 town meeting articles to be addressed by many fewer citizens. All articles passed, and the meeting adjourned at 10:03 p.m.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657