CASTINE, Maine — A road project is churning up more than just dust, soil and old pavement in this historic village. Tempers are flaring about changes to what some residents call one of the “most beautiful streets in America” that dates back to the 1779 occupation by the British.
Castine has a storied history of conflict and power struggles, having been raided and held at varying times by the British, French and Dutch, and the modern-day road dispute has echoes from those colonial times, when locals fought with new arrivals. In this case, several property owners who summer on Main Street are among critics who are trying to force changes to a project that local residents supported this past spring by a 70-to-7 vote.
Local officials have been accused of furtive decision-making and ignoring concerns raised by Main Street property owners and other residents. Although the road project is not expected to be done until next spring, it has already generated a lawsuit against the town and prompted one resident to challenge the incumbent in a selectmen’s race that ended up being decided by a mere four votes.
The controversy boils down to how the street will look once finished. Opponents say the design will result in more hard surfaces than what now exists, and will diminish the historic character of the street by removing grass strips that have separated sidewalks from the street.
“This street was built by the British in 1779, to connect the waterfront to [Fort George],” Bob Scott, a project opponent and president of Castine Main Street Association, said recently. “It truly is one of the most beautiful streets in America.”
The association, which along with resident Frank Wiswall is suing the town, also is concerned that the project’s $5.2 million budget is unnecessarily inflated, Scott said.
“We want less digging and less cost,” he said. “It’s real simple.”
Ted Lameyer, a Castine native and architect, said the project is a major reason he ran for selectman this month against incumbent Constantino “Gus” Basile. Lameyer lost the race by four votes, getting 168 to Basile’s 172.
“I think it’s going to be horrible,” Lameyer said of the new design. “It’s a shame to change it so much like this. I think we could have been better stewards.”
A little more than half the project is on schedule to be completed this year, with the intersection of Main and Water streets having been rebuilt this spring and the upper section of Main Street between Court Street and Battle Avenue being rebuilt now. The lower section, between Court and Water streets, is expected to be rebuilt in the spring of 2016.
The complaint in the lawsuit, which was filed this past June in Hancock County Superior Court, alleges that town officials misled voters at Castine’s annual town meeting this past May by falsely asserting that the selectman’s preferred design for the project had been approved at the prior annual town meeting, in May 2014.
The complaint also alleges that selectmen have ignored the results of a legally held special town meeting organized by residents this past January. At that meeting, which Scott says was done in consultation with an attorney and was conducted “by the book,” three dozen local voters approved a reconstruction design developed by Lameyer that is different from the one being implemented in the road reconstruction project.
Scott said Castine Main Street Association was formed this past spring out of the controversy. Many of its members, he said, are property owners and taxpayers who only spend summers in Castine and therefore are not allowed to register to vote in town. Of the approximately two dozen private homes on Main Street, only four are owned and occupied by year-round residents, while the rest are owned by people whose primary residences are elsewhere, he said.
“They don’t have a voice,” Scott, who lives in Castine all year, said of the town’s summer population. “The [association] is trying to be a voice for them.”
He said selectmen have not been forthcoming and have ignored entreaties from full- and part-time residents to make adjustments to the design. He said many residents are concerned about the impact the project will have on “beautiful” elm trees that line the street, and that selectmen have not disclosed what the new street lamps will look like.
The association filed the lawsuit as a last resort, he said, after getting nowhere with town officials. The lawsuit seeks an order from the court for Castine to hold a special town meeting at which voters can approve or reject the design that currently is being pursued.
“Communication [with the town] is so very restricted and limited,” Scott said. “It’s the last thing any of us wanted to do.”
Selectman Basile said last week that many people seem to be “confused” about the project. He said the new street and adjacent sidewalks actually will have a more narrow overall width than what they are replacing, and that the project received “overwhelming support” at the town meeting this past May.
He said town officials have not withheld information and have tried to be as transparent as possible about the project.
“We had untold numbers of meetings,” Basile said. “It went on for two years.”
Basile added that he is not concerned about the lawsuit, which he is confident the town will win. A hearing on the lawsuit had been expected to be held in Bangor on Nov. 3, but it has been postponed to an as yet undetermined date.
The selectman said the opposition has slowed the project down, which is adding to the cost of getting it done. He said he does not think the project will come to a halt, however, except for the planned suspension of work during the coming winter.
Basile acknowledged that the controversy has created rifts among residents and that he is eager to get the project done so everyone can move on.
“We have a lot of healing to do,” the selectman said.
Lameyer said last week that he considered asking for a formal recount in the selectman’s race and that on Nov. 16, he himself informally recounted the ballots under the supervision of town officials. He came up with the same vote tally, 172-168, but says there were some voting irregularities that should be addressed before next year’s election rolls around.
“I don’t think there’s value in asking for a recount,” Lameyer said, standing in the kitchen of his home on The Shore Road. He said he also ran for selectman in 2014 and lost to David Unger by seven votes.
Lameyer said selectmen have gotten a lot of feedback about the road reconstruction project from residents, but have shown little interest in addressing their concerns.
“It’s a loss of historic character that has been brought [on] by the selectmen’s decision. We’re going to be living with the results of their decision for the next 200 years. I think you’ll find a lot of people saddened by that.”