Orleans Town Meeting Backs $47M Wastewater Work, Rejects Sipson Island CR

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Town Meeting , Conservation , Orleans news

Andrew Burling rises in opposition to the Herrick Landing acquisition and the purchase of a conservation restriction for Sipson Island. Both articles were defeated. BARRY A. DONAHUE PHOTO

ORLEANS Town Meeting agreed Monday to spend $47 million on wastewater infrastructure over the next three decades pending a favorable debt exclusion vote at the town election May 21, but rejected spending $1.5 million to acquire a conservation restriction on 18 acres of Sipson Island.

“We have the Main Street sewers in the ground,” Paul Davis said from the floor, “on time and under budget. This article tonight asks us to build the rest of the collection system, to build the sewage treatment plant and to install the disposal field. We've laid the foundation; let's build the house, the house that gets us clean water for this town.” Only a couple of “no” votes were heard as the article was passed by well more than the needed two-thirds majority.

Following a lengthy debate, the Sipson Island article failed, with 377 for and 231 against. Josh Stewart said Community Preservation Act funds would be better spent on housing, historic preservation, and recreation at a time when “our middle school students play football in vacant lots and play tag running through downtown parking lots.”

In an email statement Tuesday, Friends of Pleasant Bay President Mon Cochran wrote that the organization was “pleased that 62 percent of Orleans voters supported the idea of conserving Sipsons Island. We are disappointed that this did not achieve the two-thirds required to acquire community preservation funding. The Friends will redouble our efforts to raise the funds needed to preserve as much of the island as possible.”

Another open space article, this one calling for $500,000 in CPA funds to purchase waterfront access on Lonnie's Pond from the Herrick family, also couldn't draw a two-thirds majority, failing 304 for and 288 against.

“The expense simply can't be justified at this time,” said finance committee member Peter Monger, who would raise a similar concern on a bushel of articles Monday evening. “There are too many other big projects.”

The meeting got off to an early start at 6:11 p.m. with a pretty full house that included a dozen or so parents taking advantage of free child care elsewhere in the building. Things slowed down as the annual meeting was adjourned for the special meeting. After finance committee chairman Lynn Bruneau provided brief explanations of some of the end-of-the-year budget adjustments on the special warrant, Andrew Burling questioned a $67,000 transfer from the water surplus account for computer-related costs, wanting to know what savings the department would accrue with its new cellular meter reading system. Assured the items were unrelated, Burling said, “I think we should think about saving money going forward. I'll be asking a few more questions.”

He wasn't the only one. Monger objected to $7,500 being transferred to pay the town's share of the regional effort to renew the cable TV contract. “Why are we only talking with Comcast?” he asked. “I encourage you to send this back to the town administrator and have him look around and find some other people.” All the articles on the special warrant were approved.

After hearing from the planning board that the town has completed 134 of the 190 recommended action items in its long-range plan, voters approved an operating budget of $38,584,748 for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and a five-year capital improvement plan. They agreed to change the order of the next five articles to ensure that the Community Preservation Act budget would reflect pending votes on the Herrick property and Sipson Island.

The selectmen were unanimous in support of the Herrick purchase, “the last buildable vacant lot on Lonnie's Pond,” McClennen noted. He said the purchase would meet the town's open space goals and be consistent with the local comprehensive plan. Donald Bachman criticized buying “a very small sliver of land going into the pond,” with room to park only three cars.

After that article's defeat, McClennen rose again to present the Sipson Island conservation restriction plan. He stressed that money would come from CPA funds, not the tax rate, as well as from private donors. Selectman Mark Mathison, one of the dissenters in the board's 3-2 vote of support, said he “couldn't understand purchasing an island that is almost impossible to get to” due to the lack of access to the water for residents and said the money would be better spent on buying more shoreline spaces on the mainland.

Speaking for the minority in the finance committee's 5-3 vote not to support, Bob Renn said “the island can be accessed from any of the 15 public landings on Pleasant Bay; it's worthy to note that eight of these are in Orleans.” Speaking for the majority, Roger Pearson said the transition to non-profit control of the island “can happen without our town involvement. We simply don't need to put our own money in it.”

Most of the speakers from the floor favored purchasing the conservation restriction. Bob Granger, who serves on the education grants committee of Friends of Pleasant Bay, stressed his organization's commitment to get schoolchildren out on the water and onto the island. Diana Landau, a member of the Sipson Island Trust, said the purchase, rather than reducing tax revenue, “will help expand our tax base and increase the tourist-based economy.” Rich Delaney, a previous director of the state Coastal Zone Management agency and current president and CEO of the Center for Coastal Studies, said “having eight public landings in this town is far better than just about any other town in Massachusetts.” Sipson “is very close to most of those landings, not much more than a mile from most,” he said, “in an area where there are no shark sightings.”

Jean McNett, a board member of Pleasant Bay Community Boating, said her organization with its 60 boats stands ready to assist public access to the island. Walter North, representing the conservation commission, said there was a real risk that more houses would be built on the island and urged that the property “which went from being the common heritage of the people who lived in this area into private hands” three centuries ago be returned “to the people.”

Just before Bob Wilkinson called the question and debate ended, Josh Stewart savaged the purchase idea. “The idea that the island will open up a magical idea of educational opportunities is simply not true,” he said. “Your students are out on the water and on the shore year-round and have been for the 20 years I've been working with them.” He said preservation funds could be better spent on the town's historic buildings “visible to all of us, not just those of us with an outlook on Pleasant Bay. They're disappearing much faster than Pleasant Bay.”

The article to spend $47 million on wastewater infrastructure passed by voice vote with little debate, but there was some wrangling over another measure to dedicate 100 percent of rooms tax revenue to a stabilization fund for wastewater work. Bruneau said the finance committee was split, recognizing how the action could “dramatically reduce wastewater debt” but wanting to allow other uses such as affordable housing, tourism support, or facilities. Luke Chapman made a motion from the floor to split the funds, 55 percent to wastewater and 45 percent to “tourism and leisure purposes.” The amendment failed on a voice vote, and the main motion passed on same.

Another battle arose over raising the rooms tax from 4 to 6 percent. Noting that owners of short-term rental properties would be paying a tax for the first time this summer, Chapman said the rate they would have to ask would go from zero to 14.5 percent, “in combination with the presence of sharks, in a community that doesn't invest in tourism, and then we want to [pin] our hopes on the future of this project being paid for by tourists.”

Don Cameron, who said he manages “a rental property on land that's been in our family a very long time,” didn't think the increase would hurt business. “The average rental is $3,000 a week,” he said. “Two percent is 60 bucks. I don't think that will stop them.” Town meeting approved the increase.

In addition to the wastewater article, a cluster of other actions approved by town meeting this week will be on the May 21 annual election ballot as debt exclusions: design and implementation of a replacement for the methane gas flare at the town landfill, design funds for bulkhead replacements at Rock Harbor and Town Cove, the town's share of costs for reconstructing Main Street between the two state intersection projects at Routes 6A and 28, and a feasibility study on renovating or replacing the fire station. The sixth and final question on the ballot would allow proposed operating expenses associated with an enterprise fund not to be included in a single omnibus article on future warrants.

Monger said action on the bulkhead project, the water main work, the fire station feasibility study and several other articles should be delayed for a year to give taxpayers a chance to recover from “a big unexpected hit” in taxes. “The problems these articles cover are not new,” he said. “Put it off for another year. It won't stop the world.”

As voting progressed, it became clear that only a handful supported delaying action. But some of the votes required a three-fourths majority, and Moderator David Lyttle advised that the law required any voice votes to be unanimous in that case. With scattered negatives voiced, a string of standing counts ensued ending in lopsided totals such as 251 to 4 (Rock Harbor water main).

Those time-consuming votes, which occurred while town meeting was coming close to losing its quorum (it did so officially around 10 p.m. Monday) may have influenced Tuesday night's unanimous approval of an article to provide funding to implement electronic voting at future meetings. In addition, the Tuesday session, which started at 6:09, raced through the first 16 articles remaining in a little over 10 minutes.

Voters were selective in approving new fees. Charges for recreation programs won approval on Monday when the article was moved up in the warrant to accommodate voters with young families, and on Tuesday increases in certain permit and other fees breezed through to approval. But a proposal to create a seasonal parking enforcement plan that would require residents to purchase a $25 permit sticker foundered when John Nichols, who'd worn a sign protesting the fee both nights outside the school, spoke up.

“If there's a parking problem in Orleans, it is in the summer and caused by non-residents,” he said. “There is no parking problem in the winter. Orleans residents should not have to pay for problems caused by others.” Nichols called for indefinite postponement of the article.

Selectman Mark Mathison said the proposal was an attempt to address the inability of town residents to access landings and parking areas in the summer. “The landings are overrun with people going there and not paying anything, and residents who pay for their maintenance and sometimes acquisition can't get there. Our hope was that by providing a resident parking sticker to residents and taxpayers we could reclaim those landings for the citizens of Orleans.” Revenues, he said, would pay for hiring people to patrol the areas. The meeting agreed with Nichols and voted for indefinite postponement.

Town meeting continued to favor affordable housing, earmarking $300,000 in community preservation funds for the affordable housing trust plus the annual appropriation of $275,000 instituted by last year's property tax override. On Tuesday night, voters agreed to reduce minimum lot size for accessory dwellings in the residential zone from 40,000 to 30,000 square feet of buildable upland and eliminated the need for owners of residential property added to the FEMA flood map to get a variance from the zoning board before building an addition.

Town meeting overturned a centuries-old tradition by agreeing unanimously to rename the board of selectmen the select board (the change won't take effect until it's voted on at the May 2020 annual town election) and passed a non-binding resolution calling on Congress and the president to establish “merciful and humane processes for handling refugees and those seeking asylum” and to take “a reasonable approach toward the millions of unauthorized persons living in our midst.” Voters banned the town's purchase of water or other beverages in plastic containers, with exceptions for distribution during declared emergencies, and joined other towns in a resolution asking the state to create a special commission to review the Massachusetts seal and motto with an eye to a design that doesn't include a Native American with a sword floating over his head and the words “by the sword we keep the peace.”

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