Ellsworth City Hall in November 2018 Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A judge on Wednesday declined to dismiss a lawsuit over the legality of Ellsworth’s decision to sign a lease for a new police station.

Justice Bruce Mallonee also rejected a competing motion to issue a temporary restraining order to halt renovations on the new station.

Attorneys representing the city, the owner of the property being renovated and the parties contesting the lease decision presented oral arguments Wednesday morning about the competing motions to dismiss and to stop the renovation work.

There was some debate about the greater issue — whether the city followed proper procedure in signing a lease with Gurney Investments — but the lawyers will have more time to prepare arguments on the appeal of that decision. A date was not set, but the attorneys for both sides told Mallonee they would be ready for another hearing sometime in April.

The case was sparked by the City Council’s decision last October to lease a former hardware store at 416 High St. and to convert it into a new police station. City officials have said the projected cost of renovating the building and then leasing it for 20 years is nearly $4 million.

City Councilor Steve O’Halloran and three landowners filed suit against the city in November, saying that the decision to lease the building was not legal. The city should have solicited bids from area landowners instead of negotiating only with the landowner who owns 416 High St., the plaintiffs said. They also allege that the city failed to give proper notice to the public about the lease proposal before signing the lease agreement.

The city contends that adequate public notice was given about the city’s plans to lease the building, and that a provision in the city’s procurement policy allows the city to single-source purchases or services in certain situations.

In the case of leasing the Gurney Investments property, there are no other viable alternatives in the city, and the situation is urgent because of substandard working conditions in the current police station at City Hall, Ellsworth officials have said. Those conditions include insufficient storage, a lack of private interview space and having to process and test seized drugs in the department’s kitchen area.

“In this situation, the city is in desperate need of a new police station,” the city’s attorney, Roger Huber, told the judge.

Huber and Michael Hodgins, the attorney for Gurney Investments, sought a dismissal in the case because Brett Baber, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, failed to meet filing deadlines that sought to have the court issue a temporary restraining order.

Baber, in turn, told the judge that O’Halloran and the landowners group were seeking a temporary restraining order on the project because it was causing “irreparable harm” to O’Halloran and the landowners. The landowners suing the city are Union River Associates Realty Holdings LLC, Chase Inc. and Willey & Grant LLC, all of which own commercial property in Ellsworth.

Mallonee declined to dismiss the complaint, saying that Baber did not miss the deadline by much and that the better alternative in cases where there are legitimate arguments on either side is to actually decide the merits of the case, rather than dismissing it on a technicality.

But Mallonee said he also failed to see what irreparable harm would be caused if the renovation work continues while the appeal of the Oct. 17 City Council vote remains pending in court. For that reason, he declined to issue a stop work order on the project.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....