Freedom – Maybe it was the good weather, but Freedom residents seemed in better spirits and less inclined to argue than they have in recent weeks, passing a six-month moratorium on commercial and industrial development at a special town meeting, Monday, June 20, with almost no debate.
A longer discussion ensued, however, around request from selectmen for additional money to cover unanticipated expenses, including those related to several petition-generated special town meetings, a backlog of town audits and associated legal fees.
But even that issue ended with a set of amendments that nearly everyone could live with.
The Commercial and Industrial Development Moratorium Ordinance, drafted by selectmen in response to a petition seeking a moratorium on industrial wind energy development, would prohibit most commercial ventures with the exception of home-occupation businesses and professional offices.
The idea, Selectman Brian Jones has said, was to take the focus off wind development, which has been a source of conflict in the town in the years since the planning stages of the three-turbine Beaver Ridge Wind development, and also to protect the town against other potentially contentious developments while officials draft one or more ordinances for commercial land use.
Addressing the 60 residents gathered at the Dirigo Grange Monday night, Jones listed a number of examples of business types, seemingly picked for dramatic effect, that could set up shop in Freedom, including an industrial solid waste facility, a commercial egg production plant, a tannery, an adult bookstore, and a rock crusher, among others.
“There’s all kinds of things that would not only affect us negatively as individuals but as a community,” he said. “… The purpose of this is merely to buy us, as a town, a little breathing room.”
Former Selectmen Tim Biggs and Steve Bennett each raised concerns about putting all commercial development under a single ordinance. In response, Jones said the number and type of ordinances would ultimately be up to the townspeople.
Residents voted almost unanimously by a show of hands to adopt the moratorium.
A subsequent article, requesting permission for the selectmen to spend money from surplus for unanticipated expenses, was more contentious.
Jones explained that selectmen had not anticipated there would be two special town meetings based on citizens’ petitions, a referendum and related legal fees. The town would need to pay for it somehow, he said.
But the wording of the article was too broad for a number of residents, some of whom asked that a dollar amount be attached to the request and that it be limited to paying for certain things. Others argued that the selectmen should have some extra “wiggle room” to pay for necessary expenditures without having to call an additional town meeting.
There was a lengthy discussion around the finer distinctions between a precautionary buffer and “carte blanche,” and what – if any – strings should be attached to the supplemental budget request.
Jones seemed perplexed by the intensity of the debate, noting that in the past selectmen had simply overspent the budget. This was the first time he was aware of, Jones said, that they had come to the town in advance to get permission.
Several amendments were tacked on to the article, creating a precariously complex motion that was voted down by a narrow margin.
A final version of the article, approved by a nearly unanimous vote, gave the selectmen an additional $15,000 to use toward audits, town meeting expenses, solid waste – Selectman Ronald Price noted that the town was close to exceeding its budget in that area, too, so the line was added to the article – and legal fees.
In other business, selectmen met prior to the town meeting and signed off on a referendum scheduled for Tuesday, July 26. The approved ballot includes questions on the following topics:
• Whether to recall selectmen Ronald Price and Clint Spaulding. The recall efforts for both officials were initiated by citizen petitions, and there will be a separate question on the ballot for each selectman.
• Whether to enact a moratorium ordinance on wind power development. The wind power moratorium proposal was initiated by citizen petition. Selectmen accepted the petition at Monday’s meeting.
• Whether to authorize the purchase of a new pumper tanker for the Freedom Volunteer Fire Department. The $250,000 expenditure was approved at the town’s annual meeting, but a group of residents who objected to the expenditure petitioned for a re-vote, which resulted in a 50-49 split in favor of buying the truck. Opponents subsequently filed a second petition seeking a third vote, this time by referendum.