VASSALBORO: Open town meeting planned for June 22

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro officials plan to hold an open town meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 22, at Vassalboro Community School (VCS), believing they can do so safely and within state guidelines.

Town Manager Mary Sabins said consensus was reached after many email and personal discussions among selectmen, town office staff, VCS technology coordinator David Trask, School Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and two attorneys with whom Sabins consulted. Selectmen unanimously approved at their May 14 meeting.

Written-ballot local elections are scheduled for Tuesday, July 14, at the same time as state primaries and referenda. Vassalboro polls will be at VCS, not in the town office as usual.

Discussion of the open meeting focused on conforming to state safety regulations to protect everyone involved. The current plan has the meeting moderator at one end of the VCS gymnasium flanked by socially-distanced staff and officials, facing spaced chairs, with no more than 50 people in the room.

The cafeteria would be set up to accommodate a separate gathering of up to 50 more people. Trask said setting up a two-room sound system would be no problem. Various ways to convey messages from people in the cafeteria to the moderator were proposed.

What if 101 people show up, Trask asked. “That’s gonna be a problem,” Sabins replied.

No one wants to discourage voters from attending the meeting. Selectmen think some residents may be hesitant about joining a crowd; and Sabins said she believes there is only one potentially controversial agenda item, the proposal to buy a new fire truck.

Town office to re-open

Town Manager Mary Sabins said at the May 14 selectmen’s meeting that the Vassalboro Town Office is scheduled to reopen to the public on Monday, June 1, with appropriate protective measures for staff and members of the public.

The May 14 discussion covered how to check voters in safely – perhaps by setting up plastic-shielded check-in desks outdoors, Trask suggested – and how to let them out at the end of the meeting while observing distancing. With four separate doors, the exodus from the gym would be comparatively easy, Trask said.

The other main topic May 14 was the planned fishway at the China Lake Outlet Dam in East Vassalboro. Matt Streeter, Manager of Maine Rivers’ Alewife Restoration Project (ARI), displayed on-screen detailed plans for the project that will let alewives complete their annual migration from the Sebasticook River into China Lake.

The fishway that lets the small fish swim upstream in the spring will be along the east bank of the stream, with access for construction over the Cates property, Streeter said. In the fall, out-migrating fish will exit through a tilting weir close to the west bank.

The fishway will not interfere with the town’s managing the dam to control China Lake water levels in accord with state regulations, Streeter said.

Streeter’s presentation covered the fishway itself and related topics like run-off control during construction and protection of archaeological resources if any are found.

Sabins and selectmen were concerned about the town’s responsibility to maintain the fishway. Streeter said the wooden baffles that are its main feature should last 10 years or so; replacing them is a simple and inexpensive bit of construction. He offered to provide spare baffles the town could store until needed.

The Department of Marine Resources has primary responsibility for opening and closing the gates that control entrance to the fishway and the weir, depending on water and fish flows, Streeter said. He agreed it would be helpful if town public works staff were also knowledgeable.

The Outlet Dam is not intended to host people watching alewives; the viewing area will be at Box Mills dam in North Vassalboro. Streeter and selectmen talked about at least a sign, and if necessary a fence, to keep people away from the stream.

ARI spokespeople have said they intend to have the Outlet Dam fishway built in the summer of 2021.

Vassalboro selectmen have cancelled their regular May 28 meeting due to lack of agenda items.  Their next regular meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, June 11.

UPDATE: This article has been updated from the print version to show the May 28 meeting has been cancelled.

Local municipal offices set to re-open

Vassalboro town office

ALBION

The Albion Town Office is open regular business hours. Monday 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., Tuesday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Thursday 12 p.m – 6 p.m. Limit 2 customers in the building.

BENTON

The Benton Town Office is currently open to the public Monday – Friday 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Limit two customers in office at a time.

CHINA

The China Town Office is currently open for walk-up service Monday – Friday 7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.

FAIRFIELD

The Fairfield Town Office will be re-opening to the public on Tuesday, May 26. We will be limiting members of the public allowed in the building to no more than two at a time. The hours will be shortened to 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Masks, gloves and own pens required. Residents may call for an appointment or curb side service if they are unable to meet the PPE requirements. The Lawrence Public Library is working on a plan to re-open on June 1. This plan is still being finalized but may entail no public in the building, pre-ordered books, shortened times to sign out new releases, curbside pick-up, and seven-day quarantine of returned materials.

PALERMO

The Town of Palermo is discussing plans to re-open but nothing has been finalized.

VASSALBORO

The Vassalboro Town Office will re-open to the public on Monday, June 1, at 8 a.m., with a few restrictions.

All town office visitors will be asked to wear a face mask and that no more than two customers enter the lobby at the same time, all while practicing social distancing. If possible, do not bring friends or family members with you. It is understood that some will need to have children with them. Hand sanitizers have been installed and residents are encouraged to use them when entering the building. Plexiglas has been installed at work stations and people are asked to bring their own pens.

Remember that most transactions can be done online by visiting Vassalboro.net, scroll to the bottom and click on the purple house. The public restroom will be closed until further notice.

WATERVILLE

All departments at City Hall, in Waterville, will re-open on Monday, June 1, at 8 a.m., with social distancing requirements in place.

UPDATE: This story has been updated for additional town office information.

Town meeting to be by written ballot only; warrant reduced to 24 articles

by Mary Grow

At their May 11 regular meeting, China selectmen rescheduled and reformatted the annual town business meeting to meet current health requirements and approved reduced 2020-21 expenditure requests in anticipation of revenue shortfalls.

The business meeting will be held Tuesday, July 14, and will be by written ballot. Polls will be open in the former portable classroom behind the town office from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Town Manager Dennis Heath reduced the meeting warrant to 24 articles, each worded so it can be answered either yes or no.

The revised budget figures were the topic of a May 5 special meeting of the selectmen and the budget committee. They were approved with all but one member of each board present. Most decisions were unanimous.

Heath told the two groups he expects next year’s excise taxes will be $127,500 below initial projections, as residents postpone buying new vehicles; state revenue sharing will drop by $100,000; and local road assistance will be $10,000 below the prior estimate.

To offset the decreases, the revised warrant asks for $389,372 less spending than originally planned.

Three major proposed expenditure reductions are:

  • In the administrative other account, more than $86,000, by postponing building the planned document storage addition to the town office and the requested outdoor classroom in the China School Forest behind China Primary School.
  • In the public works budget, $74,000, by reducing the amount of repaving. Instead of adding a mile to begin to catch up on postponed work, the revised budget would cut a mile and a quarter.
  • In community support organizations, $44,000 reductions in the appropriations for the China Lake Association and the China Region Lakes Alliance, mostly by postponing work that would have been done under the LakeSmart program.

The cuts are partly offset by increases in insurance premiums, which range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, Heath said.

To shorten the warrant and reduce the time voters spend at the polls, some articles were combined. For example, Art. 5 now includes appropriations requests for association dues, welfare and social service agencies, which were previously three separate votes.

Two proposed articles to add to law enforcement, by hiring a full-time policeman or by contracting with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department, have been deleted.

At the selectmen’s regular meeting May 11, they gave final approval to the revised procedure and the revised warrant.

Heath said the warrant in the annual town report, available at the town office, is out of date. He plans to mail the approved warrant to town voters.

Heath said he learned that voters’ decision some years ago to hold local elections by secret ballot in November can be interpreted as authorization to do the entire town meeting by secret ballot. He recommended that selectmen use the written-ballot process this year due to the pandemic, and later ask voters to decide whether to eliminate the open town meeting permanently.

Selectmen approved the plan, with Wayne Chadwick commenting that this year could be “a test run.”

In other action May 11, selectmen unanimously approved a two-year contract to continue using the Waterville Police Department’s dispatching center to answer China’s 911 calls for fire and rescue services. Heath said the approximately $3,000 increase in the cost of the service is included in the proposed 2020-21 budget.

Board Chairman Ronald Breton recommended a future study of alternative dispatching options, in case they have changed since China chose the present system.

Heath asked selectmen to review two documents he distributed to them by email, a report on the transfer station and the draft revised comprehensive plan prepared by the town’s Comprehensive Planning Committee and Kennebec Valley Council of Governments planner Joel Greenwood.

In the interval between meetings, Heath announced by email two steps toward reopening town functions:

  • Beginning May 12, walk-up window service is available at the town office.
  • Beginning May 13, the transfer station is again accepting demolition debris, in addition to mixed waste.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 26, postponed from the usual Monday evening because of the Memorial Day holiday. According to Heath, this would be the final Zoom-only meeting, since the governor has indicated that June 1, 2020, is the first day the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Vassalboro planners study solar power application

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members reviewed two preliminary applications for solar power development in town at their May 5 virtual meeting. They expect one to be ready for a public hearing (if needed) and perhaps final review at their June 2 meeting.

Both projects involve solar panels on metal supports inside a high fence with a locked gate (emergency access is provided for the fire department). Both are close to highways and to connections with Central Maine Power’s system.

The smaller and more nearly ready project is on land owned by Bernard Welch, at 515 Main Street, almost opposite Ron’s Auto parts. The developer is ReVision Energy, represented at the planning board meeting by Project Developer, Nate Niles, and Construction Project Manager, Al Copping.

The project will cover about four acres and will be a community solar farm like the one at Three Level Farm, in China, also developed by ReVision. Niles explained that customers as a group will sign a lease agreement with Welch, own the equipment and share power from the solar panels, with ReVision building and managing the project.

Construction normally takes two to three months, and Copping said the work is mostly “low noise” – the pile-drivers putting in the poles to support the panels are the noisiest equipment.

Niles added that solar projects make no demand on water supplies and generate no waste.

The solar farm is expected to run at least 25 years. Niles agreed with board Chairman Virginia Brackett’s suggestion that instead of decommissioning the project when the panels lose efficiency, usually after 30 or 40 years, new panels could be installed.

Board members discussed at length ways to give residents a chance to ask questions and make comments before the board makes its decision. They decided if ReVision’s final application is received soon enough, they could begin their June 2 meeting by determining if it is complete and, if it is, hold a public hearing by inviting advance input and instructing interested residents on ways to join the meeting virtually.

The larger project, to cover about 20 acres of a 28-acre site, is proposed by Longroad Energy Management LLC, represented by David Kane and by Kara Moody and Brooke Barnes from consulting firm Stantec. It is located at 2579 Riverside Drive, shown on maps as on the east side of the road a little south of the southern end of Burleigh Road (old Route 3).

Moody and Barnes said the project will include solar panels and auxiliary equipment; an existing access road will be extended farther into the property. Since the land is mostly agricultural, little clearing will be needed.

Moody said there is no definite timeline yet; she expects to present a revised plan later this spring.

Pandemic casualty: China Dine-ah closing permanently

China Dine-ah on Lakeview Drive in China.

The China Dine-ah, a popular eatery in South China, will remain closed permanently, according to owner Lisa Wardwell.

In a Facebook post, Wardwell declared, “It is with immense sadness that I am writing this message to let you all know that the China Dine-ah will not be reopening for the foreseeable future. Being closed for what will be ten weeks on June 1, and now finding out that all of the fairs and many other events have been canceled, in addition to not being allowed to run at full capacity, indicates that we will be losing much of our summer business that we rely on.

“Unfortunately, we can not survive this type of loss. We want all of our loyal customers in China, across the state of Maine and beyond to know that it has truly been a pleasure serving you. We are going to put all of our efforts into reopening our Augusta location, Lisa’s, on Bangor Street, on June 1. We would love your support and you can expect the same exceptional service and delicious food you were accustomed to at the Dine-ah. Thank you for your years of patronage and we hope our paths will cross again soon.”

Norm Elvin, who founded the restaurant in 2008, said, “Sure hope it’s feasible to get the Dine-ah up and going next spring. Not saying I will open it, but I will do everything in my power to make it a rebirth after a year of being shut down.” Elvin sold the Dine-ah to Wardwell in 2014.

Vassalboro selectmen approve power purchase agreement

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen put one long-discussed issue to rest at their April 30 meeting, when they unanimously approved a power purchase agreement with ReVision Energy to buy power from an out-of-town solar project, they hope beginning early in 2021.

However, they and Town Manager Mary Sabins made no progress on the difficult questions of deciding when and how to hold the annual town meeting and what to do if it can’t be held before the fiscal year ends June 30.

They have not yet abandoned the scheduled open town meeting Monday, June 22, followed by a written vote Tuesday, June 23. The June 23 vote would include local elections and the school budget validation referendum, at which voters accept or reject the 2020-21 school budget adopted the day before.

But they spent part of their April 30 meeting considering possible alternatives in case the plan can’t be followed.

Possibilities include holding an open meeting with social distancing, for example by using two different rooms at Vassalboro Community School or having an outdoor meeting on the ballfields. Technology coordinator David Trask said connecting two rooms would be difficult, but possible; providing a public address system on the ballfields would be easy.

If the selectmen were to abandon the open meeting and hold a town meeting by referendum, at least three problems arise. Sabins said the warrant questions would need to be reworded; Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus and Selectman John Melrose believe the required advance notice makes action before June 30 impossible; and Sabins said School Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer has legal advice that the school budget cannot legally be voted by referendum, but requires an open meeting.

Sabins pointed out that gatherings of more than 50 people are probably banned through the summer. Trask asked if several 50-person groups could assemble in different parts of the ballfields.

A related complication is what to do about taxes and spending. The normal procedure is that voters approved the budget; the assessor compares revenues with expenditures and recommends a tax rate; selectmen make the tax commitment, usually in August; and bills go out in time for the first quarterly payment in late September.

If a budget is not approved by June 30, the usual procedure is for the municipality or school department to continue at the previous year’s levels until voters approve a new budget.

Melrose suggested since the current 2019-20 and proposed 2020-21 budgets are very similar, selectmen could set the tax commitment without an approved 2020-21 budget. Sabins was not sure doing so would be legal.

Most requirements related to town meeting procedures are set by the state legislature; legislators could amend them.

Selectmen intend to discuss the issue again at their next regular meeting, scheduled for Thursday evening, May 14, or at a special meeting if Sabins gets information that will let them make decisions sooner.

The solar energy contract is almost identical to the one signed by the Vassalboro School Department on April 28, Portland-based attorney Aga Dixon told selectmen (see The Town Line, April 30). As she did with school board members, Dixon explained the contract in detail, including the estimated savings in the town’s electric bill and the variables that could affect projected figures.

Selectmen authorized Sabins to sign the contract, and Dixon gave her a partial list of follow-up documents she should receive. Selectmen expect Vassalboro will be in time to join the distribution list for power from a proposed solar array in Skowhegan. Dixon said construction should begin in May and the project should be generating power early in 2021.

Vassalboro Sanitary District representative Lee Trahan joined the discussion. He said VSD board members need more time to consider whether to participate in the solar power program. Dixon said if they decided to join too late to sign as part of the selectmen’s contract, they could do a separate contract as the school board did.

Expanded and renewed agricultural funding programs

The Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL) loan application portal reopened as of May 4. The intent of the reopening is to ensure that EIDL loans and EIDL advance loans are made available to Ag related businesses. Applicants who applied before the new streamlined portal may now reapply if their application number doesn’t begin with a “3”. If an applicant has an application number that starts with a “3,” there is no need for them to reapply. The SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance is working through processing applications in order of receipt.

The link to apply (or reapply) is: https://covid19relief.sba.gov/#/.

China selectmen, budget committee to hold virtual meeting

by Mary Grow

China selectmen and Budget Committee members will hold a joint virtual meeting beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 7, to discuss changing budget recommendations in the warrant for the annual town business meeting.

According to an email from Town Manager Dennis Heath, he expects at least 8 percent less income for 2020-21 than was anticipated when the proposed budget was approved, and is collecting recommendations for matching budget cuts. Voters will approve the budget at the annual town business meeting.

Selectmen intend to discuss date and format for the meeting at their Monday, May 11, regular meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Both board meetings will be broadcast live and archived on the Town of China website.

China planners hear preliminary information on second solar development

by Mary Grow

At their first virtual meeting April 28, China Planning Board members heard preliminary information on a second proposed solar development, this one on Route 3 (Belfast Road), and scheduled a site visit and a public hearing.

SunRaise Development of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the company that previously received approval for a solar array off Windsor Road (Route 32 South) north of Erskine Academy, proposes a smaller similar project on about three-quarters of Dan Ouellette’s lot. The lot is the site of a loam-mining operation that Codes Officer Bill Butler said will be reseeded when the ground is dry enough.

On Jim Wilkens’ recommendation, board members set a site visit for 9 a.m., Saturday, May 9. Anyone planning to attend is asked to notify Butler at the China town office promptly, because participants are limited to 10, including SunRaise representatives and board members. Social distancing will be practiced.

A public hearing is scheduled for the next planning board meeting, moved from the usual second Tuesday of the month to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 19. People with questions will need to sign up to participate in the meeting or submit the questions in advance. The meeting will be available for viewing at the China website.

At the April 28 meeting, Kevin Corbett, vice-president of Construction at SunRaise, Lisa Vickers, senior project manager with Atlantic Environmental in Woolwich and Joe Marden, of Sitelines, a Brunswick engineering and surveying firm, explained that the new project will be a smaller version of the Windsor Road one.

SunRaise plans to lease most of the property – Ouellette is keeping the northeast part with Route 3 frontage. A gated access road will run south off Route 3 to about the middle of the lot, where batteries and related equipment will be grouped. A line of trees running roughly east-west will be cut.

Because the lot is smaller than the Windsor Road one, solar panels will be farther apart and slightly more tilted to reduce impervious surface. Once the ground under them is reseeded, the project will meet China’s lot coverage and phosphorus run-off requirements. The panels will have a non-glare coating.

Board members discussed questions raised by abutting landowner Neil Farrington related to run-off in the China Lake watershed and other issues. They voted that the application is complete, ready to be reviewed against China’s land use criteria after the site visit and hearing.

China group organizing gardeners to support local food pantry

Marie Michaud’s two loves in one picture: her garden and her grandchildren. (contributed photo)

by Eric W. Austin

Marie Michaud doesn’t have any experience addressing local food shortages, but that hasn’t stopped her.

“I just feel something in my heart and I do it,” she says to explain the current project encouraging local gardeners to plant a few extra rows to support China Community Food Pantry.

Well known in China for her work on the LakeSmart initiative, Michaud researched and developed the idea of a new gardening committee to address potential food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and presented her plan to the Greater Neck Road Neighborhood Association (GNRNA), the local group sponsoring the effort.

“We are seeking volunteer gardeners to increase their garden plots and provide fresh vegetable donations,” she says. “The pandemic has caused problems in the food distribution system, so we are organizing gardeners to ensure that we can deliver harvested carrots, corn, cucumbers, potatoes, green beans/wax beans, summer squash, Swiss chard, zucchini and tomatoes to the China Food Pantry later in the summer when they are likely to need it the most.”

She also brought her idea to the China for a Lifetime committee, a town committee dedicated to supporting community activism. The plan was embraced with enthusiasm. “We support Marie’s effort one hundred percent!” says committee chairman Christopher Hahn.

Those without gardens are not being left out. “We are also looking for people willing to help tend the extra rows,” says Michaud. “We’ll need people to help harvest the veggies, and transport the items to the food pantry. We happily invite all ages to join us in this worthwhile activity. Help us spread the word by sharing this information with your family and friends!”

Those interested in participating, either by planting extra rows or by helping those that do, can contact Marie Michaud, garden chairman, at 242-0240 or by email at mmtmfarm@gmail.com.

“Please join the Greater Neck Road Neighborhood Association in our effort to plant more in our gardens,” says Michaud, “and donate fresh produce to supplement the food supplies of the China Food Pantry. As the only food pantry in our town, this worthy charitable organization has dedicated 27 years to helping address food insecurity for residents of China.”

Eric W. Austin writes about issues important to central Maine and can be reached by email at ericaustin@townline.org.