2017-12-29 / Front Page

All about dogs, dams and dime baggies

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

As the curtain drops on 2017, it seems all but certain the history books will remember it as a tough and acrimonious year on the national stage, as President Trump took to Twitter time and time again to spar with political rivals.

Meanwhile, it was an active 365 on the local level as well, with Kennebunk Town Hall, in particular, seeing some of its largest crowds in recent memory turning out for public meetings. Turnout was fueled by fear the Mousam River dams would get torn down, or, depending on one’s point of view, that they wouldn’t.

There was concern dogs might get denied their historic beach-going privileges. And there was a yearlong undercurrent of worry the scourge of marijuana, now legal on the state level, would turn the area of Main Streets into an endless array of head shops and biker bars.

But, on the plus side, no local selectmen were accused of colluding with the Russians.

Here are a few of top stories of 2017:

Mousam River dams

One could argue the story of the Mousam River dams began several years ago, when directors of the Kennebunk Light and Power District first began to grapple with what to do about a deadline to file for renew of a federal power generating license. One could also argue it was a 2016 story, and Kennebunk Light and Power trustees voted in June of that year to not pursue relicensing, while voters countered that November with a trio of referendum votes demanding the dams stay in place.

But the ball really got rolling this past January, when Gov. Paul LePage showed up unannounced at a joint meeting between selectmen and KLP trustees, pledging support for keeping the dams in place, at least, if not actually generating power. More than 125 people packed the town hall auditorium at that meeting to express concern about the future fate of the dams.

In March, the die was officially cast when KLP trustees sent formal notice to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, stating that when the district’s license expires in 2022, the fed can feel free to assign it to someone else.

For a long time, it did not appear anyone else was interested, and selectmen were lobbied by local activist group Save the Mousam, which had petitioned for the referendum vote, to step in, possibly partnering with some other entity, to assure continued use of the dams. Several board meetings were packed to standing room only as selectmen wrestled with what to do, including whether or not to hire an independent consulting firm for advice, and how much to pay for that service.

Finally, as a September FERC deadline for expressing interest in the dam license rolled around, two groups stepped forward — the Save the Mousam folks, and newly formed America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York. FERC rejected the local group, which could not show clear financial and technical capability to take on the dams. That was okay with them, group leaders said, as the intent of their filing had been to facilitate continued talks between the town and KLP.

Finally, just weeks ago, FERC officials made their first appearance in town at a pair of “scoping sessions,” and it began to lay out the parameters of its examination of America First’s preliminary license application. America First founder Ian Clark also made his first local appearance, telling about 130 people who gathered at the two FERC meetings that he did indeed hope to keep the dams up and running, and maybe even increase power generation of the aging infrastructure over time.

“We thought there was a great opportunity to come in here and help folks in the town out, realizing these are projects that just need a little bit of a push in the right direction and there is wide support from the governor’s office for them,” he said.

“This was likely the most visible and contentious subject of the year,” said Dick Morin, chairman of the board of selectmen, in a recent email. “This subject revealed more experts and advisors on the subject of dams, electricity generation, decommissioning, license renewal and fish/ecology that any could comprehend. I personally remain very impressed with the genuine care and interest each party brought to the table. The process is long, the costs could be tremendous and the decisions are once in a lifetime. So, we better get it right.

“Continued discussion, deliberation and negotiation will bring the subject to a mutually beneficial conclusion,” Morin wrote. “My hope is that the outcome remains locally driven and managed.”

All requests to have a particular study performed in relation to the dams are due to FERC by Jan. 18. America First will have to foot the bill for any studies ordered, and FERC is due to issue its first report on those studies on July 21, 2019. Following a dispute period and additional rounds of studies, America First will have to submit its preliminary licensing proposal on Nov. 2, 2019, and its final application on March 31, 2020.

So, 2017 will go down as only one small piece of the larger dam story.

Dogs get their day

Another story that spanned the length of 2017 was the issue of dogs on the beach in Kennebunk.

Late last winter, one resident raised a ruckus by suggesting the beaches had become unruly, overrun, and in need of greater restrictions.

That resulted in a May meeting of the town’s dog advisory committee, attended by nearly 150 residents, nearly all of whom argued against extending the ban of when dogs can be on public beaches during the summer.

Still, the committee continued to look at the appropriateness of the current rules in light of frequent complaints about dog behavior and waste impeding the enjoyment of non-dog owners when visiting the town’s seaside public assets. The result was a unanimous vote Oct. 25 to recommend no changes.

According to committee leaders, town ordinances did not need to change because other changes were put into effect, not the least of which was the number of volunteer monitors tasked with gently reminding dog walkers of the rules, which burgeoned from about 10 at most in 2016 to more than 40 this past year.

Those monitors also were put in bright orange vests, making them more visible. Police also provided monitors with greater training and support, while committee members took a more active part in stocking dispensers from which dog walkers could obtain plastic bags to scoop and remove dog waste, sharing amongst themselves what had previously been the job of a single person.

Driving much of that change was the birth of grass-roots activist group Keep the Pooches on Gooches, which quickly grew from a few dog owners with hackles up over the very suggestion of a dog ban, to a Facebook group with more than 800 members.

In November, selectmen endorsed the committee recommendation to leave the dog rules untouched.

“This was a fine example of residents working together to solve problems,” Morin said. “Not everyone ‘got their way,’ but I do believe significant progress was made to ease the tension between the canine lovers and those who were opposed to their presence on the beaches.”

Up in smoke

Again proving the rule that the big local stories of 2017 encompassed the entire calendar year, starting a year or more earlier, and promising to carry well into 2018, was the legalization of marijuana. After legalization for the nod in a statewide referendum in November 2016, legislative leaders set about the task of defining how and under what conditions the product could get sold. By year’s end, that was still an open question.

But in the meantime, Kennebunkport voters decided it would not affect them, voting in November to adopt a local ordinance outlawing commercial cultivation, manufacture, and sale of marijuana within its borders. Kennebunk, meanwhile, adopted, and twice renewed, a moratorium on accepting and business license applications or requests or site plan applications. Late in the year, the planning board agreed to take up a proposed ban of its own, scheduling a Jan. 8 public hearing.

Arundel, meanwhile, was one of the few towns in Maine to escape the issue unscathed. Voters there rejected a moratorium proposal early in the year, and the rest of the calendar was spent waiting to see what the state will do.

“The implications of this marijuana vote were far reaching, not because of the social tilt, but the inadequacy of all of the pre-work needed to keep up with unintended consequences,” Morin said. “Without the same tools used today with alcohol related vehicular infractions, the training and use of dogs in law enforcement, ambulance and potentially fire related incidents, the costs will by significant along with the drain on manpower. It will take years to adequately measure the true costs.”

School construction

It was another issue that might logically have been credited to another year, as the $56.5 million bond to renovate three RSU 21 schools was held in 2015, with the big fight, which included efforts waged in both Arundel and Kennebunkport to withdraw from the school district over the expense, long since settled in favor of the project.

But as the new Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel came on line, and work at Kennebunk High School neared completion, several local leaders polled by the Post cited that development as one of the truly big stories of 2017.

“The construction of our schools continues to be a huge story,” said Laura Dolce, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve heard rave reviews on the work done so far, and am confident the high school will be extraordinary once done. The strength of any community relies in large part on its schools and it’s wonderful to see ours finally living up to the community they serve.”

“The facilities are wonderful and should serve the youth and communities for years to come,” Morin greed. “It was a long overdue project that will hopefully contribute to a more healthy environment and better end result.”

New home

And finally, rounding out the Top 5 was another story that started several years ago, encompassed all of 2017, and will continue to make headlines after the turn of the new year. And while the purchasing of land for a new town hall in Arundel may not carry much water in either of the Kennebunks, the development will impact life in Arundel for generations to come.

That’s partly due to the fact that most of the 48-acre parcel on Limerick Road will go to the Arundel Conservation Trust, a group funded expressly to manage that land, and any future acquisitions. Of course, since ACT was founded under the auspices of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, the deal does have some import there, as well.

The $375,000 to buy the parcel, funded in part by $175,000 ACT was able to borrow from KCT, was approved by voters in June, after several years of wrangling by selectmen over site selection, a decision that spilled over into several public hearings in 2016. In the final deal, closed Dec. 5, the town will retain 10 acres of the purchase for a future new town all — with planning to begin in early 2018 by a new ad hoc committee — while ACT will retain the rest, along with easements secured from an abutting landowner, Selectman Phil Labbe, to access both the Kennebunk River and the Eastern Trail.

“This critical first step has been accomplished with such a spirit of mutual cooperation and future-thinking,” ACT board member Jack Reetz said. “ACT looks forward to working on more such community building projects with the town.”

“Now the real work begins,” agreed ACT President Joan Hull. “ACT is a brand-new conservation trust and we need help from everyone in the Arundel community. We’ll be actively pursuing grants and fundraising and building our community membership. We hope to start laying out trails and constructing our trail system next spring. ACT is looking for volunteers to help us in everything we do, so please call or email and join us.”

Honorable mentions

There were more than five important news stories in 2017, of course.

Here are some of the honorable mentions:

• New town manager for Kennebunk: Mike Pardue was tapped in late 2016 to take over on an interim basis for the retiring Barry Tibbetts. Just before the start of the new fiscal year, selectmen made that choice permanent. Although there was some minor controversy over how selectmen made that decision, having previously promised a public process, even those who were most vocal about being shut out, like budget board member John Costin, nonetheless praised the selection.

“With the new leadership comes a different approach and view of what’s up in Kennebunk,” Morin said. “More a pragmatic and task-oriented leader, Mike Pardue has chosen to first work on refining the skill set and capabilities of his great team. And Mike is providing tools, both business and interpersonal in nature, to raise the bar even further.”

 Business turnover: “It’s been a year for business changes, with David’s KPT closing, along with Perfecto’s Caffe, Tia’s, Market Day, Toroso and Salud,” Dolce said. “We had some great signs, too, though, including the opening of Garden Street Bowl, Honey Maker Mead, Pearl, a new place opening on Main Street where The Hive used to be and lots of interest in the Perfecto’s site.

“Every week we talk to people looking to locate their businesses here. That wasn’t the case a decade ago,” Dolce said. “So sure, there’s been turnover, but people still really want to bring their businesses here.”

 Bridge crossing: Completion of a new Mathew Lanigan Bridge, linking Kennebunkport’s Dock Square with Lower Village in Kennebunk was celebrated as a sign of good times to come. Completed over the winter, the $2.7 million rebuild finished in advance of the annual crush of tourists to the twin historic shopping meccas.

“There’s perhaps no greater symbol of the connection between Kennebunk and Kennebunkport than this bridge, and thanks to this redo, which came in sooner than expected,” Dolce said. “It will be around for another 100 years.”

Also mention by multiple officials replying to request for big news nominees — the year-long work on a new master plan to refresh Lower Village, the compromised sea wall in Kennebunk, the continuing debate over a potential Amtrak train stop in Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport’s continuing effort to find solutions for affordable housing, as well as the town’s inaugural “chalk-fest” celebration, and the annual Christmas Prelude event, which drew its largest-ever crowd this year.

Finally, one news story was cited by several local officials as the biggest story you may not have head about, as it sort of flew under the radar.

Although Maine’s burgeoning opioid crisis in no secret, taxpayers in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel did get tapped this year to help fund a new treatment center, launched by York County.

“I don’t think the subject has received the attention or respect it deserves,” Morin said. “This is once again a social and economic story. The problem drains resources (for good cause) that might otherwise be utilized in another equally beneficial fashion – not to mention the pain and agony of the individuals so stricken and their friends, families and support structure.”

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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