On June 8, voters in Camden will choose two of four candidates to serve a three-year term on the Camden Select Board. Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to the town and region. Here, Candidate Matthew J. Siegel discusses his position on various topics.
Please provide a biography of yourself and explain why you decided to seek a seat on the Select Board
With my experience on the Camden Planning Board, and in light of my volunteer involvement with the Midcoast Internet Coalition, I am well-prepared and in a unique position to understand and to address the challenges that will face the Camden Select Board and the Midcoast region.
I have lived and worked in the Midcoast for over 30 years, and owned my home in Camden Village since 2004.
I earned degrees from the University of California-Berkeley (B.A.) and California State University-San Francisco (MFA). My professional background includes work in motion picture production with Sony Pictures; in higher education as a professor with New York University; and in new technology research, development and marketing at Google.
My two decades of experience in public policy, community leadership, and grassroots organizing involved service on the National Executive Board of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600 and work on the regional level on the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors for the Portland-based Maine Film Association.
As the vice-chair of the Camden Planning Board, I work with Camden’s Comprehensive Plan and its zoning ordinances, and balancing the need to maintain Camden’s charming look and feel while updating and revising codes, ordinances, and regulations that bolster economic development and maintain the social fabric.
I also volunteer as the vice-chair and Camden representative to the Midcoast Internet Coalition, a regional effort to design and build a community-owned, high-speed fiber optic network.
Using my previous experience, and by listening to the community, I can best contribute to the dynamic landscape of the Camden Select Board.
What are the three most pressing issues facing Camden today, and how would you like to see them resolved?
During my years of involvement with Camden planning, I have learned that members of the community want the town to run smoothly, with a functioning infrastructure, little drama, and not have their taxes go up. When I am out walking with my canine companion, Kona, friends and neighbors tug my sleeve about three issues:
(1) the need for high-speed connectivity at home and at work
(2) repairing the aging infrastructure
(3) finding ways to address the environmental challenges caused by climate change.
#1: Affordable high-speed internet jumped to the front of the list over the last year as we found ourselves doing everything from home: Education, communication, healthcare, reaching emergency services, and running and maintaining businesses and home offices. We woke up to the fact that our reliance on high-speed and reliable connectivity has and will continue to increase. To make sure our town grows equitably, that access needs to be affordable.
A community-owned municipal utility is the way forward to overcome the frustrations and limitations that we have faced in regards to connectivity. Midcoast Internet, a regional municipal utility, will provide access to high-speed, affordable, and reliable broadband service.
With approval of the multi-town warrant articles on the June 8th ballot, we will move forward to design, finance, build, and partner to operate a high-speed, open-access fiber optic network. Through a hybrid financing model, we will fund this project without raising taxes in our communities.
#2: Go for a walk around Camden after a major storm and you will become aware of our aging infrastructure. “Matt, do you have minute?” is often accompanied by an invitation to a climb down to a wet, musty basement, view a non-functioning adjoining culvert, or march through a swamped backyard to a rotting and collapsing garage. We have sewer, water, and drainage issues in town.
To the credit of the current Select Board and Planning Board, and with the expertise of the town’s management, renovations to the Opera House are being addressed; upgrades to the sewer system are financed, approved, and ongoing; and repairs to roads and the existing but aging physical infrastructure are being responded to in a timely and professional manner. The addition of Rosie Curtis as the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer adds another set of expert eyes and ears to address these ongoing issues. We are listening and doing our best.
#3: As a coastal community, we are on the front line when it comes to addressing environmental issues and challenges caused by climate change. We see the impact of climate-related changes in our rising sea levels, rapidly expanding flood areas, deteriorating coastal foundations, and collapsing storm walls.
The Camden Planning Board has been tasked with addressing Camden’s plans for resiliency and amending the existing Comprehensive Plan to include actions and ordinance changes to address the challenges of climate change. We are meeting with experts in the field and with Maine’s best climate-related institutions for help and guidance in drafting new guidelines and adjusting existing ordinances. We share the common goal of the region and the state in creating a workable plan to be resilient in the face of those changes and challenges.
Climate change also has an impact on the town’s natural resources including The Camden Snow Bowl, Megunticook Lake, Hosmer Pond, and the Nature Pathway. The town management, planning board, and current Select Board are addressing climate change and environmental issues across a wide range, as exemplified by Select Board member Alison McKellar’s extensive work on river dams and ways to support habitat restoration.
Managing these resources is part of the Comprehensive Plan. Being responsible stewards of our natural resources in light of rapid environmental changes serves the best interest of our town and supports its health and welfare for future generations.
How will you protect the Camden taxpayer as you shape and govern a municipal budget, and juggle various interests that request municipal funding throughout the year?
In an open and transparent manner, and with the guidance and cooperation of the Budget Committee, the Town Manager, and experienced Select Board members, I will help shape and govern municipal expenditures, looking out for the Camden taxpayer by doing my due diligence and taking my fiduciary responsibilities seriously. These duties include exploring innovative cost-saving options and ideas, developing new revenue opportunities, and starting initiatives that benefit local vendors without added tax burden to the community at-large.
To “protect” the Camden taxpayer requires understanding the issues and opportunities laid out in our comprehensive plan. I will continue to review our Annual Report, the reports from our auditors, and be in-the-know for new ways that municipalities are solving financial challenges.
I will encourage the Select Board to continue its active partnership with our professional management team lead by Audra Caler to address the overall ecosystem of the town’s budget, its expenses, and its active and passive revenue streams. I have the utmost respect, admiration, and appreciation for the support and professionalism of our town management team and look forward to working with them as a member of the Select Board.
The Select Board and the professional management team leads our town in a manner that serves the interests of the community, allows for its efficient operation, maintains its infrastructure, and provides public safety. We pay taxes in support of these operations as we deem them necessary for the health and welfare of our municipality.
As a new member of the Select Board, I will assess the town's budgeting and taxation as well as its current and future financial commitments. Considering the big picture of the town’s revenues and operational costs, while keeping in mind the necessity for discretionary spending.
How do you envision Camden’s harbor and downtown to evolve, economically and culturally?
With the Lyman-Morse construction project, we are witnessing the future take shape on the north side of the harbor. While the glass and chrome design features put some folks off, the economic model of that project strikes a balance between bolstering the working waterfront with well- paying jobs and professional services while catering to the call of tourism, with the incorporation of restaurants and retail outlets.
Drawing from public comment during numerous hearings, the Camden Planning Board balanced the design elements, the mixed use, and the mandatory review criteria, to move forward and to realize the L-M construction as the next evolution of Camden Harbor.
One of Camden’s attractions, for both residents and visitors, is its walkability. As a member of the CPB, I was pleased to approve the Lyman-Morse design plans that included a robust buildout of the dock frontage area to provide for a safe, night-skies compliant promenade along the pier.
On the landing and its adjoining shops, and throughout downtown, we have seen over the last decades the shift to a retail service base. The retail outlets and our many restaurants have evolved into the dominant economic force. Culturally and politically, even within the context of a service and tourist-based economy, we have a responsibility to entice boutique businesses, to support/encourage local ownership, and to find ways of keeping dollars spent in the local economy.
The “mall-ification” of the harbor and downtown would destroy Camden’s character and kill its soul. We continue to revise town policy and ordinances (down to simple assists like changing parking requirements) to aid small businesses and entrepreneurs, support their enterprises, and to maintain the character and charm of our town.
How do you see Camden positioned in the larger regional Midcoast economy?
This winter saw the lights on throughout town and the houses full of people from away. They were buying groceries at Hannaford’s and French & Brawn, enrolling their kids in schools, and for the most part working remotely from their homes.
These new residents brought economic vitality as consumers, but they also launched the price of homes into the stratosphere. A home which should have been $300,000 was now selling within days for $700,000. This type of inflation can squash out commercial opportunities and designate Camden as place where the workforce can’t afford to live.
Now for some good news: After the gut punch of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left our downtown decimated and a FOR RENT sign on every third window, we are seeing the downtown coming back, storefronts getting fresh paint, new signs, and stocked with merchandise for what appears to be an economically vibrant summer season.
Camden is a major economic driver in the regional economy. Town businesses contributed substantial amounts in sales tax revenue to the State of Maine. And Camden has the highest valuation at $1.36 billion in Knox County. From tourism to yacht building, to the winter activity hub of the Snowball -- We are providing jobs and opportunities for regional economic growth and development. Our large tax base and substantial contribution to county programs and services also help support the overall health and welfare of the region.
Camden has and will continue to take a leadership role in creating regional partnerships. This pro-active stance can be seen in its leadership to create and support regional development plans like the Midcoast Internet municipal utility.
Camden has a lack of workforce housing, as articulated by the current Select Board. Do you agree, and if so, what would you do to help improve the housing shortage?
Camden has long history in regards to a lack of workforce housing. My little house built in 1916 is a prime example. She is an 800 square-foot cottage that at one time had eight bedrooms. This partitioning was in response to the need to house workers from the Jacobs Quarry. And thus, the “new indoor” toilet got moved into the attic.
One hundred years later, we are still addressing workforce housing issues. In the Planning Board meetings, with the assistance of City Planning Director Jeremy Martin, we look at ways to adjust the zoning ordinances, the building ordinances, the lot size requirements, the street frontages, and the possible street setbacks. As a group, we wish to maintain the look and feel of our town, while exploring ways to create “relatively affordable” housing units and development opportunities.
We have looked to create areas of greater density downtown, and at ways to develop areas north of the Village in the Coastal Residential District. We will need to develop public/private partnerships and look at tax increment financing option. As such, we look at options to build new water and sewer lines to service areas that have potential for development. That type of infrastructure is expensive to build and expensive to maintain.
An “800 pound gorilla” issue remains: Camden is a prime real estate market in high demand. Knowing that we face some of the highest material, labor, and land costs in the region, we seek options to build workforce housing and look to find new ways to make those housing units both accessible and affordable. Jeremy Martin and Representative Vicki Doudera have shared examples, related articles, and we have discussed options and developments from York to Mount Desert Island. I am committed to working with local and regional partners to find solutions.
Municipal committee meetings have been suspended for the time being by the current Select Board. Do you agree with that directive?
I have been committed to finding innovative ways to increase access and ensure transparency during these uncertain times. “In-person” meetings and gatherings were suspended during the past year, in accordance with state and federal regulations. However, work for the town continued to be done online. The Planning Board met every two weeks on our usual schedule via Zoom. The Broadband Committee has been meeting via Zoom with members of the Midcoast Internet Coalition and working remotely on a daily basis in advance of the June 8 ballot and in response to the rapid influx of state and federal funding opportunities. And I attended an informative Zoom panel hosted by the Energy Committee last week.
Throughout the periods of changing guidelines from the CDC and the Maine CDC, the Town of Camden has thankfully weathered the pandemic and its restrictions, maintained a safe manner to conduct business, kept the community informed, and successfully instituted new policy while following best practices.
In the near future, we will return to “normal” practices in regards to gatherings for governance and management. Notices will be posted and attendance will again be encouraged, while keeping a watchful eye on the safety of our town officials, our committee volunteers, our town management team, and the general public.
The Camden-Rockport Pathways Committee has proposed a longterm plan for safer and healthier pedestrian and bicyclist provisions. Have you read that plan and do you support it?
I read the plans and support the mission, the vision, and the goals of the committee. Starting back in 2000 with the mission statement and into 2007 with its Master Plan, the Camden-Rockport Pathways Committee has demonstrated a strong vision – to provide safe pedestrian and bicycle pathways. In the face of climate change, and the needs to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, along with the unquestioned health benefits of walking and cycling (at all levels and for the full range of our community), the time is right to allocate resources towards improving our pathways for pedestrians and bicycles. A surprise benefit – and great delight (for us dog walking folks) -- of the recent Park Street paving project is the upgrade and restructuring of the adjoining sidewalk. It has allowed for a newly crafted safe and pleasant morning walk, looping from and returning back to the village.
A number of years ago, as a member of the Planning Board, I was able to attend a lecture by Jeff Speck, the author of The Walkable City. I would recommend reading his book and listening to his engaging TED talk.
How best should all Camden citizens access high-speed, broadband internet?
Connectivity and high speed broadband are essential to the health and welfare of Camden. Warrant Article #6 on the June 8 ballot provides a solution that will serve the community for generations ahead, without any tax increase.
I volunteer as the vice-chair and Camden representative to the Midcoast Internet Coalition (MIC), a regional effort to design and build a community-owned, high-speed fiber optic network. In the MIC, we share the goal of providing all residents with fast, affordable, and reliable internet connectivity. This coalition of nine Midcoast towns, with an additional half dozen towns and organizations under its umbrella, considers broadband connectivity an essential utility, like water and electricity.
On the June 8 ballot, Camden citizens have the chance to free themselves from the private internet service providers (ISP) and the giant cable companies that have had a monopolistic chokehold on our community, resulting in mediocre performance at high cost.
With approval of the warrant articles on the June 8th ballot, we will move forward to design, finance, build, and partner to operate a high-speed, open-access fiber optic network. This regional utility model is working throughout the United States, with success stories from Ammon, Idaho, to Longmont, Colorado, down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, over to neighboring Vermont with EC Fiber, and up to our local neighbors in Calais and Baileyville with their rollout of Downeast Broadband.
The Midcoast Internet network will be open access, allowing for competition and lower pricing. This future-proof fiber network will have the highest levels of service, providing base speeds of 100/100 and up to 1gig/1gig.
I also serve on Camden’s Broadband Committee. I am exceptionally proud of the work that we are doing and for the opportunities this project will provide for Camden in telehealth, primary and secondary education, small business, communications, home entertainment, working from home, and towards the overall economic development of our region.
Does Camden need to draft new short term rental regulations? If so, what would they be?
Short-term rental registration and the possibility of further regulations are hot-button topics. I have heard arguments and proposals in my neighborhood and on the Planning Board. Rental property owners say that they do not want to be subject to registration, registration fees, or further regulation or limitations on their abilities to generate income from their property.
The question of registration for “un-hosted” short-term rentals is set to go to the voters on June 8. Registration of un-hosted, short-term rentals is a place to start in regards registration and towards revising regulations. Camden would benefit by creating an up-to-date database, reviewing its short-term rental inventory, and assessing its associated policies (hosted and un-hosted). Based on that data, the town can decide in which manner to revise its regulations in regards to that inventory.
As a rental property owner (not in Camden), I am required to register my property. I answer a series of questions in regards to the use and occupancy of the property, in the same manner as is proposed in the June 8 Warrant Article. I pay a nominal fee each year to the authority that oversees the registration of rental properties. To Deb Dodge’s point in a Pen Pilot article, I am required to provide proof of insurance and the property is inspected for safety every two years. These requirements have proven beneficial as a private property owner and serve to insure basic public safety
In exchange for the fees paid, the authority provides information and guidance to me, my neighbors, and my tenants. The service has proved beneficial over the years and allowed us to communicate in an improved manner and avoid potential disputes. I also appreciate that should there be an emergency situation, the property and its occupants are known and can be contacted, allowing the residents and the neighbors to keep out of harm’s way.
Does the Snow Bowl need a new lodge?
As one friend noted as he sought to find his kids in the packed lodge, “The place is bursting at the seams.” A physical renovation and expansion of the Snow Bowl Lodge would be beneficial to the winter sports community and, if done right, for the facility’s general year-round use.
When updated with year-round applications in mind, the renovated Snow Bowl Lodge would go further to generate “off-season” revenue through its advertised but under-utilized uses for small meetings, company retreats, wedding receptions, etc. The goal would be to create an expanded and upgraded facility that would be multi-use, cost-effective, and benefit a diverse year-round community.
Where is your favorite place in Camden?
Hiking in Camden Hills State Park, discovering a rocky bluff adjacent to Maiden’s Cliff, or paddling in a Kayak around the backside of the Curtis Island lighthouse…More than suggest a favorite place, I would lobby to take a time out: Leave the computer and the cell phone behind, and go escape for a few minutes from your stressful day to appreciate the natural and scenic beauty of Camden. That break may involve a view of the water and a few deep breaths of the fresh air. What a great opportunity to appreciate where we are and how fortunate we are to be here. (Of course, if your need to do some stress eating during this break, there is always the Ruckus Donut fix.)
Free space! Please add additional thoughts as you see fit.
Drafting this article and answering a wide variety of questions over the last weeks have guided me to reflect on the job, its scope, scale, and the responsibilities associated with being a Select Board member. I hope that these answers provide insight into my thoughts on town governance, on the direction that Camden may be going in the coming years, and how I might work to assist the community as an elected official on the Camden Select Board. I look forward to listening and perhaps answering further questions when you see me at the French & Brawn meat counter or when I am out walking with Kona.