China TIF committee members get update on causeway, other projects

The causeway bridge update by Joe McLean, from Wright-Pierce Engineers, was intended as part of a public information session. (Contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

China’s TIF (Tax Increment Financing) Committee members got an update on the causeway and other projects and on internal application forms and heard more fund requests at their May 7 meeting.

The causeway bridge update by Joe McLean, from Wright-Pierce Engineers, was intended as part of a public information session, but only people who had business with the committee attended the meeting.

The causeway project starts with replacing the current bridge at the head of China Lake’s east basin. Future plans include making more room for recreational use east of the bridge, including additional parking. McLean had an artist’s rendering with a bigger boat ramp and large new areas of concrete north of the causeway and some on the lake side.

McLean showed plans for a new bridge that will be close to 50 feet wide, with a wider two-way lane for vehicles, a 10-foot pedestrian way on the lake side and an eight-foot space on the muldoon (north) side for ATVs and snowmobiles.

The bridge will be enough higher than the current one to let canoes and kayaks pass under it.

Working in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Army Corps of Engineers, McLean expects to have needed permits within the next two months. Meanwhile, he said, Wright-Pierce is ready to seek bids on the work, which is scheduled to be done in October and November of this year, during China Lake’s fall drawdown.

McLean said Maine Department of Transportation officials told him the Causeway Road speed limit is 45 miles an hour – left over, people suggested, from the days when Routes 202 and 9 went across the causeway and through China Village. The bridge is therefore being designed to safely accommodate pedestrians, recreational vehicles and 45-mile-an-hour traffic.

The MDOT might do a speed study, McLean said, and the study might result in a lower speed limit, especially if it showed that most traffic moves at less than 45 miles an hour. Several people endorsed a lower limit.

TIF Committee members voted unanimously to start studying the proposed next phase of the project, which includes parking, the boat launch and reconfiguring the shoreline. They hope to make enough progress by late September to know whether future plans will require any changes in the bridge plan.

In other business, Christopher Hahn, chairman of the China for a Lifetime Committee, reported that the committee is working on improving communication within the town, especially to and from the town office.

Landis Hudson from Maine Rivers said the project to restore alewife access to China Lake is proceeding, with one of the Outlet Stream dams removed, a second to be removed in 2019 and fishways planned at the others.

Neither Hahn nor Hudson asked for TIF funds. Committee members did hear two fund requests, one indefinite and one with a preliminary price tag.

Robert O’Connor and Tod Detre of the Broadband Committee are still exploring ways to expand and improve internet access in town. They are considering various alternatives, including one that would require one or two more telecommunications towers. TIF Committee Chairman Amber McAllister asked them to develop a proposal with a cost estimate.

Anita Smith repeated her request for funds for a building in the China School Forest behind China Primary School. Local contractor Blane Casey designed a four-season center for storage, programs and classes, at an estimated cost of $270,000.

McAllister asked for other, less costly designs and whether grant money could supplement town funds.

The TIF Committee does not yet have an application form for people seeking funds. Committee members agreed they need one.

Also lacking is an application form for the planned Revolving Loan Fund. Amy Gartley, head of the RLF subcommittee, said the group has a draft form and a draft program outline. The RLF is intended to provide bridge loans for China businesses seeking to open or to expand.

As the meeting ended, Joann Austin reminded committee members that China’s comprehensive plan puts gaining public access to China Lake as a high priority.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated incorrectly that Landis Hudson was with American Rivers. He is not. He is with the Maine Rivers organization. We apologize for the error.

Vassalboro board of appeals schedules two meetings; Denico veggie stand, Welch permit


by Mary Grow

The Vassalboro Board of Appeals has two meetings scheduled, one tentatively on May 15 and one on May 22, both at 7 p.m. in the town office meeting room.

On May 15, board members plan to hear Parker Denico’s request for a variance from shorefront setback requirements, if Denico submits his application soon enough. He seeks to open a seasonal vegetable stand in North Vassalboro less than 100 feet from Outlet Stream, and learned at the May 1 Planning Board meeting that he cannot get a Planning Board shoreland permit unless the Board of Appeals first grants him a variance.

The May 22 meeting, a continuance of the board’s May 8 meeting, is to hear Jonathan Blumberg’s appeal of a permit granted by the codes officer to Bernard Welch. At the May 22 meeting Blumberg objected that the required notices in a newspaper and to abutters had not been given.

Owners of properties sharing a boundary line with the Welch property at 78 South Stanley Hill Road were notified, but not those across the road. Attorney Kristen Collins said if South Stanley Hill Road is a state-owned road, across-the-street residents are not abutters. Since no one knew whether the road is owned by the state, the town or perhaps the property-owners on either side, Collins advised sending additional notices.

Vassalboro selectmen appoint Conservation Commission member; award bulk waste contract


by Mary Grow

In addition to approving the warrant for the June 4 and 12 town meeting, Vassalboro selectmen dealt with two other issues at their May 1 meeting.

They appointed Laura Jones as a new member of the Vassalboro Conservation Commission for three years.

On Town Manager Mary Sabins’ recommendation, they awarded the bid for hauling bulky waste – mattresses, furniture and similar items – to low bidder Central Maine Disposal, also for three years.

Sabins is not optimistic about trash disposal in the near future. With the opening of the new Fiberight facility postponed from April to at least September, many communities are landfilling trash; and prices for most recyclables have dropped dramatically, she said.

All three Vassalboro selectmen are philosophically opposed to landfilling on environmental grounds, but they accepted it as a temporary measure.

They agreed that they will not abandon Vassalboro’s single-sort recycling program, regardless of current financial effects. They hope they or larger recyclers can store materials until prices rebound.

Sabins said Public Works Department head Eugene Field reported the town’s cemeteries and lawns have been cleared of winter debris and are ready to be mowed.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17.

Vegetable stand gets site approval in Vassalboro; still needs shoreland zoning permit


by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members were able to give Parker Denico one of the two permits he needs for a seasonal vegetable stand in North Vassalboro. For the other, he needs to go first to the Board of Appeals.

Denico said he would like to build his stand on Ray Breton’s Main Street lot, near the gazebo. Planning Board members found he needed a site review permit for the business. They went through the site review criteria and unanimously approved that permit, finding the new business would have no adverse impacts on the neighborhood.

Denico also needs a shoreland zoning permit to put the temporary building less than 250 feet from Outlet Stream. He estimated the distance to the stream at 50 feet or maybe a little more, well within the 100 feet where no new building is allowed without a variance from the setback requirement.

Board members told Denico only the bard of appeals can grant variances. The variance, if approved, would go with the land, not with Denico’s business, Board Chairman Virginia Brackett said, so Breton would benefit as well.

Breton tore down a house that had been even closer to Outlet Stream, and local ordinances say such a non-conforming building can be replaced within one year, board members said. However, they and Codes Officer Richard Dolby found the house was torn down more than a year ago and Breton’s application to replace it had expired. Denico plans a stand that would be a maximum of 10 by 20 feet, he said. He would like to open in June and plans to close no later than the end of October. He grows cucumbers himself and intends to sell produce from other area growers, starting with strawberries from Benton if he can get the stand approved and open early enough.

The board of appeals already had a May 8 meeting scheduled. Dolby said he would ask members how soon they could meet again to hear Denico’s variance request.

Vassalboro proposed budget shows 0.90 mil rate increase


by Mary Grow

After hours of meetings, Vassalboro school and town officials have come up with a budget to present to voters on June 4 that pleases few if any of them.

The major problem is that if voters approve the expenditures proposed by the school board and selectmen, they will increase their tax rate by 0.90 mils (90 cents for each $1,000 of valuation), from the current 14.55 mils to a projected 15.45 mils. According to figures Town Manager Mary Sabins prepared for the May 2 selectmen’s meeting at which the town meeting warrant articles were approved:

  • The proposed $2.061 million municipal budget for 2018-19 has gone up a little more than two percent over the current year, but because non-tax revenues are expected to increase, the municipal budget will require over $27,000 less in taxes.
  • The $335,327 Kennebec County tax, which the town is obligated to pay, is up four percent, adding close to $13,000 due from taxes.
  • The $7.731 million school budget, by far the largest of the three, will require well over $328,000 in additional tax revenue, by Sabins’ calculations.

The town meeting warrant consists of 56 articles to be decided June 4 and two more that voters will act on at the polls on June 12, ratifying or rejecting the school budget approved June 4 and electing local officials (one selectman and one school board member).

The June 4 open meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Vassalboro Community School. In addition to budget issues, voters will elect budget committee members, set various policies and approve or reject amendments to Vassalboro’s Building Permit Ordinance. There are currently two vacancies on the budget committee, and Elizabeth Reuthe said she does not intend to serve again.

After long discussions, the budget committee voted to differ with selectmen on one expenditure article and with school board members on another.

The selectmen propose setting aside $37,500 from taxes for two reserve funds, $25,000 to go toward a new plow truck and $12,500 as half the estimated cost of a new metal roof on the Riverside fire station. The budget committee recommends the same amounts, but advocates taking the $37,500 from the town’s surplus (also known as unassigned or undesignated fund balance) instead of from taxes.

In the school budget, the school board recommends for Vassalboro Community School administration $329,119.48, a 14 percent increase from the current year, primarily because the incoming principal will command a higher salary than the outgoing one. The budget committee recommends $279,119.48, or $50,000 less.

Several budget committee members said their goal is to make sure there is a debate over school spending on June 4. In recent years, voters impatient to end the meeting have approved voting on all the school budget articles as a group, an action that has had the effect of limiting discussion.

The school board approved its budget recommendations at a special meeting on April 25, after earlier discussions in March and April. The vote was not unanimous; Susan Tuthill was absent and Jessica Clark voted against the budget request, explaining afterward that she believes the resulting tax increase is “too much for the town.”

School board members have repeatedly revised the budget downward. At the April 25 meeting, AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 Superintendent Eric Haley and Finance Director Paula Pooler presented what they consider the final cuts and rearrangements they can safely recommend.

They hope for state approval for two new buses this year. They could ask for one, Haley said – and risk student safety. Similarly, they could assume one fewer home-schooler will enter high school at town expense in 2018-19 – and risk a major hole in the budget.

School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur and retiring Principal Dianna Gram urged support of the budget request. Gram said Vassalboro Community School is dealing with the difficult task of accommodating special-needs students without shortchanging regular students. The number of very expensive out-of-district placements has declined during her tenure, she said, especially since the school’s student support center opened.

Gram said 29 percent of VCS students need some kind of special help. School board member Jolene Clark Gamage expects the number will increase, primarily due to Maine’s drug problem.

If voters reject the budget, Pooler said the only way to get a meaningful decrease would be to cut personnel, a move Haley said “would decimate the school.”

Budget committee members are distressed at the tax increase, and also unhappy with the school board’s decision to sign a three-year contract to continue using Waterville’s central office services despite the dissolution of the AOS. Several committee members suggested school board members had accepted Haley’s advice to stay with Waterville without adequately researching alternatives.

Budget committee members pointed out repeatedly that school choice – allowing Vassalboro high school students to go wherever they want – is a costly option. Eliminating choice and requiring town-supported students to attend only one high school would need voters’ approval, and they are aware that school choice has wide support among residents.

China planners talk about procedures, ordinance changes

by Mary Grow

China Planning Board members spent their April 24 meeting talking about board procedures and potential ordinance amendments.

Two procedural questions revolved around signing the formal findings of fact document to support their April 10 approval of Wesley and Susan Horton’s permit to open a teen leadership camp at 24 Pond Hill Road.

The first issue was whether board members were reopening review of the criteria on which they previously voted. They decided they were not, and that in the future the board chairman and the codes officer could sign the findings of fact, representing the board.

The other question was when the Fire Marshal’s permit had to be in Codes Officer Paul Mitnik’s hand. Obtaining the Fire Marshal’s permit was made a condition for getting China’s permit for the project; so board members concluded Mitnik should not give the Hortons their final okay until they have it.

Mitnik said he found discrepancies in China’s land use ordinances and suggested an approach to correction, which board members seemed to like. They have been reviewing the definitions section of the ordinance for the last several months, as time permitted, and might eventually ask voters to approve changes.

The codes officer also suggested revising and re-presenting the part of the proposed amendments to match town requirements with state guidelines that China voters rejected in 2016 and 2017. Although board members agreed neither the present ordinance nor the state guidelines are entirely satisfactory, they decided not to pursue the issue now.

Chairman Tom Miragliuolo said he planned to submit names of two volunteers for a new committee to update China’s comprehensive plan to selectmen at their April 30 meeting. More volunteers are welcome; Planning board members would like to have a committee of six or eight people, at least.

The next regular planning board meeting is scheduled for May 8.

China selectmen revisit causeway project, fire pond

Neck Road fire pond, winter 2018

by Mary Grow

At their April 30 meeting, China selectmen returned to two often-discussed issues, the causeway project at the head of China Lake’s east basin and the fire pond dug last fall off Neck Road.

Board members are concerned about reports that the steep sides of the fire pond are falling in, moving it closer to Neck Road and creating a possibly dangerous situation. After reviewing alternatives, including guard rails, creating sloping sides and filling in the pond, they decided they can do no more until they talk with landowner Tom Michaud, due back from Florida in a day or two. Board Chairman Robert MacFarland said he and Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux will meet with Michaud as soon as possible.

On the causeway project, board members compared engineering companies’ quoted prices for different phases of the work to replace the causeway bridge and reassigned oversight responsibility from A. E. Hodson of Waterville to Topsham-based Wright-Pierce. They decided since they already hired Wright-Pierce to design and bid out the project, it is the logical entity to supervise the work of the contractor selectmen choose to do the work.

L’Heureux said A. E. Hodsdon is engineering two other China projects, Hunter Brook culvert replacements on Bog Brook and Pleasant View Ridge roads. The town has a $95,000 stream crossing grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to cover two-thirds of the estimated $142,000 cost of the Pleasant View Ridge Road culvert, the manager said, with the rest to come from town funds.

The TIF (Tax Increment Finance) Committee will offer interested residents information on the causeway project at the beginning of its May 7 meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the town office meeting room. TIF money is funding the work, part of a larger plan to enhance recreational uses at the head of the lake.

In other business April 30, Selectman Irene Belanger announced that the RSU (Regional School Unit) #18 meeting at which registered voters from the five member towns vote on the 2018-19 budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at Messalonskee High School’s Performing Arts Center in Oakland. The meeting is open; voters will have a chance to ask questions and propose budget amendments. The budget voters approve May 17 will be subject to validation or rejection by written ballot in all five towns on June 12, along with state primary elections and any other local questions.

On Tuesday, May 8, Belanger said, Thurston Park Committee members will meet at 7 p.m. at the town office to plan the annual spring clean-up in the town-owned park. People who are not committee members are welcome to help, as they have done in past years. Those interested should contact Belanger, committee Chairman Jeanette Smith or the town office.

Selectmen made four appointments to a new Comprehensive Planning Committee charged with updating China’s comprehensive plan. Members so far are Joann Austin, Irene Belanger, Kevin Rhoades and Carrol White III. Others interested should contact the town office.

Selectman Jeffrey LaVerdiere commented on residents who rake their lawns and throw the leaves and other trash into China Lake. Several people said the practice is both environmentally unsound and a violation of state law.

Selectman Neil Farrington said the selectmen have 30 applications from people interested in succeeding L’Heureux as town manager when he retires at the end of June. Board members went into executive session after their meeting to begin review of the newest applications.

Ice out…boats in!

Photo courtesy town of China

It’s official! Ice is finally out on China Lake, following what seemed an endless winter. The Town Line’s judge ruled ice went out on the lake on Monday, April 23, 2018. With her dead-on correct guess of April 23, Maggie Hanigan, of North Vassalboro, is the winner of the 2018 ice out contest.

Agenda for China TIF committee meeting

The China Tax Increment Finance Committee will hold its regular meeting on Monday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m., in the China Town Office.

The public information session will be a review of progress on current initiatives:

  • Bridge replacement and the Causeway Road, by Tom Michaud, Jim Wilkens and Frank Soares.
  • Phase I, bridge replacement, with Joe McLean from Wright-Pierce.
  • Phase II, other site improvements and the need to proceed (parking enhancements, waterfront configuration, boat ramp, and permitting. Phase III, additional parking considerations.

There will also be a revolving loan fund program update, and presentations on the China for  Lifetime Committee, with chairman Christopher Hahn, Alewive Restoration Initiative with Landis Hudson.

Other items at the meeting will include China Lake access, China Forest Trails/Project Learning Tree, Four Seasons Events building.

Finally there will be applications to the TIF Committee for consideration of funding from the TIF resource.

Vassalboro selectmen work to finalize warrant for town meeting


by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen have moved their first meeting in May from the usual Thursday evening to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, in the town office meeting room.

A major agenda item needs to be signing the warrant for the June 4 and June 12 annual town meeting, because Town Manager Mary Sabins’ schedule calls for the warrant to go to the printer by Friday, May 4, to be included in the annual town report.

However, selectmen ended their April 19 meeting and the budget committee meeting that followed with nothing resembling a finished warrant. There were three problems:

  • Sabins was waiting to hear from the Alewife Restoration Initiative, or ARI, what question or questions the group wants to put to Vassalboro voters. She had set aside two warrant articles for ARI, but expects only one to be used.

The manager and selectmen are working on two changes to shorten the warrant, which had 70 separate articles (68 for the June 4 open meeting and two more for written-ballot votes June 12) as of April 19. They propose combining social services and related agencies’ requests in a single article, without hindering voters’ chance to discuss each request separately; and they suggest combining separate requests for authorization to apply for grants into one article.

  • The most important problem was the lack of a 2018-19 school budget. Neither the school board nor AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 officials had submitted proposed expenditure figures for the 14 school articles that require a budget committee recommendation.

The school budget makes up the major part of the total expenditures voters will decide on. Selectmen and budget committee members have recommended substantial reductions in amounts Sabins and town department heads initially requested for the municipal budget, and the school board has lowered its original figures; but the projected tax increase is still higher than many budget committee members are comfortable with.

Looking at the potential – but not guaranteed – increase of more than one mil ($1 for each $1,000 of valuation), budget committee member Douglas Phillips opined that “At some point we’ve got to stop raising taxes and live within our means.”

He and other committee members repeatedly said it will be up to voters to decide what they’re willing to pay for. “The bottom line is the people who are going to be affected need to be at the [town] meeting,” Budget Committee Chairman Rick Denico said.

Denico said School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur said the school board planned to meet April 25. Budget committee members want the school board to further reduce the 2018-19 budget and to have the expected one-time payment from the dissolution of the AOS go toward 2018-19 school revenues, not into surplus.

Denico planned to attend the April 25 school board meeting.

Budget committee members did make recommendations, most but not all unanimous, on municipal warrant articles, agreeing to disagree with the selectmen – at least until May 2 – on minor sums here and there. Both boards abandoned the idea of eliminating the town police department, recommending $69,797 for public safety, including police, animal control and emergency dispatching services. Neither board recommends setting aside money in a reserve fund for a new police vehicle.

June 4 voters will elect six budget committee members instead of the usual five. Denico, Phillips, Richard Phippen and Elizabeth Reuthe are ending their two-year terms, with the option of seeking re-election. John Melrose resigned last fall when he was elected selectman, and Denico said Ed Scholz resigned this month. Whoever is elected to Scholz’s seat will serve for one year, finishing his term.

Town Clerk Cathy Coyne said there will be no contests on the ballot at the June 12 local elections. Unless a write-in candidate declares, Melrose and Jolene Clark Gamage are unopposed for re-election to three-year terms on the board of selectmen and the school board, respectively.

The June 4 open town meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Vassalboro Community School. June 12 voting will be at the town office, with polls open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.