The Rockport Select Board voted May 9 to appoint a negotiation team to enter into discussions with Maine Media Workshops and College regarding the future of the former Rockport Elementary School property at the corner of Route 1 and West Street.

At their April 19 meeting, it was decided not to put a question on the June ballot to direct the board to negotiate with Maine Media for the redevelopment site.

At that time, board member Tracy Murphy said the board was not legally bound by the need for voter approval before beginning negotiations, and that limiting the question to the Maine Media proposal would not give the board enough direction. She said the RES East committee did a good job of generating ideas, but that voters needed to see a more fully formed proposal.

At the May 9 meeting, Select Board Chairman William Chapman said he had spoken with Maine Media President Charles Altschul.

“They would like to pursue the proposal,” said Chapman. He said the school, which is currently located on Camden Street, was prepared to spend up to $20,000 to explore the condition of the RES East site, prior to making a firm proposal. Altschul said April 19 that his board was not prepared to spend the money without a commitment from the town to negotiate exclusively with Maine Media.

Board member Tom Farley, who was not at the April 19 meeting, said he was concerned that approving exclusive preliminary negotiations would “look like we didn’t ask voters again.”

Chapman said the negotiating team would not make any decision about selling the property, but would instead help Maine Media understand the town’s requirements for such an arrangement. He said any proposal that came out of discussions between Maine Media and the town would be presented to voters, possibly as early as the November general election.

“We need more to present to the voters,” said Chapman.

Town Planner and Development Director Tom Ford said a negotiating team would be able to figure out what the possibilities were in terms of the future of the athletic fields, structures and other parts of the property and determine the potential cost of a lease or selling price.

“They would spell out the details and make them available to the public for a future vote,” he said. Ford said Maine Media planned to work with Boston and San Francisco-based Sasaki Associates to redesign the campus.

Board member Alexandra Fogel said discussions with Maine Media would lead to mapping of the site and a list of possible changes to the exterior of buildings and the surrounding landscape.

Board member Dale Landrith Jr., who was also not at the April 19 meeting, said the warrant article that was defeated in April would have given the board permission to do what they were now considering doing without voter approval.

Maine Media Board of Directors and National Advisory Council Chairman John Claussen said the board was enthusiastic about the property, but would not proceed unless they had a sense that they were the only project the Select Board was considering.

“A nonprofit can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars if it’s an auction,” he said. “We understand that it has to go to voters before proceeding to a sale.” He said his board was prepared to go to donors with a request for $2 million or more to be used to purchase and upgrade the site.

“We won’t get our donors to commit unless the town will commit,” said Claussen.

Chapman reminded residents that at the end of a 10-month public visioning process that culminated in the release of a request for conceptual proposals, only four entities submitted ideas for the property’s future use.

Many residents expressed concern about the process and asked the board to consider a public referendum to determine whether citizens wanted to sell the property at all.

“I’m all in favor of Maine Media doing RES,” said Edie Caldwell. “First, you need to ask the people of Rockport if they want to sell it or not. Once you sell it, it’s gone.”

Farley said that negotiations would allow Rockport to tell Maine Media what the town wanted. He said Public Works Director Steve Beveridge had determined that it cost the town more than $14,000 a year just to keep the buildings as they are and that it would cost close to $150,000 to dispose of the debris from demolishing the buildings, if the town wanted to clear the land of structures.

Landrith said he supported Maine Media’s proposal, but that he had promised “a handful of citizens” that he would seek a town-wide vote on the matter. He said he would prefer that the issue be voted on in an open public meeting.

Lowell Jones said he didn’t understand what the hurry was, and that the town should not sell the property.

Robert Duke, who served on the Ad Hoc RES East Redevelopment Committee, said there should be an open public forum to discuss alternatives such as selling or leasing the property. He said he supported Maine Media’s proposal, but that final negotiations would be the responsibility of a new Select Board.

On June 14 voters will choose from among five candidates for two seats on the board.

Murphy said asking voters only whether they wanted the town to sell the property was too broad a question.

“We have to be willing to take responsibility,” said Murphy.

“I don’t think we need to have a public meeting,” said Fogel. “I’m going to take responsibility and vote right now to begin to plan to meet with Maine Media.”

Farley said he wanted to move forward with the proposal but that, like Landrith, he had agreed to send the issue to voters first.

Fogel made the following statement, which Landrith seconded and the board voted on.

“We should vote right now to begin to plan with Media Workshops whatever they want to do, whatever our negotiators decide, and take it to the voters in November with some alternates, that Maine Media Workshops will do this if they want to buy it, they’ll do this if we lease it, they’ll do this if whatever, and they’re going to leave us the field, they’re going to make us tax money because they promised that already. The other buildings that they have will make us more tax money. It is a win-win all the way around and I would like us to start and get going with it.”

That statement passed as a motion with Murphy, Chapman and Fogel in favor, and Farley and Landrith voting against the measure.

The board appointed Fogel, Ford and Duke to work with Maine Media as the town’s negotiation team.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by -mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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