Voting 71 to 60, Camden citizens approved a measure at annual town meeting that relinquishes final sale of the former Apollo Tannery property to their Select Board.

Since 2008, final disposition of the land was left to voters with a ballot referendum vote. That changed on June 15, giving the board the legal right to sell the land to potential buyers, in accordance with redevelopment guidelines drawn up in 2008.

The vote followed a lengthy discussion in the Camden Opera House, where approximately 150 residents and town staff gathered to consider a 14-article warrant, three articles of which were addressed the previous day at the polls. On June 14, the town elected two new Select Board members, James Heard and Don White Jr.; elected Matthew Dailey and Willard Hibbard III to the school boards; and approved school budgets and an amended subdivision ordinance.

The remaining warrant was addressed by citizens voting from the floor on various articles, including the $6 million municipal budget, elections to the Budget Committee and how the tannery property is divested. The warrant was shorter than the 23-article warrant of 2010, and the 43-article warrants of earlier decades, when town meetings stretched late into the evening.

As it was, Camden’s 2011 Town Meeting, moderated by Don Gross, lasted until approximately 9:15 p.m., with the tannery discussion, as well as an amendment to keep spending under the LD 1 spending cap, drawing commentary.

The inclusion of articles 6A and 6B occurred on May 3 at a Select Board meeting, when town attorney Bill Kelly proposed language that would authorize the board to dispose of all tax-acquired property, including the tannery property. The land, an industrial brownfield, sits in the Millville neighborhood. The town has invested $836,000 in cleaning it up, after acquiring the property in a tax lien foreclosure in 2003. In 2008, the Tannery Work Group recommended the town sell the property in accordance with guiding principles and buyer/developer qualifications. Incentives proposed by the group included supplying a “land for jobs” rebate as a means of encouraging the creation of year-round jobs.

This past winter, B.D’ Turman’d Entertainment LLC pursued acquiring the land, proposing to construct there two sound stages to be used in film production. The deal, as pursued by the town and the LLC principals, became controversial, and in late April, the LLC pulled out. Reasons for terminating a purchase and sales agreement were attributed to the overly constrictive land configuration, size, and restrictions affecting title that would make it impossible for the business to develop the studios, adequate parking, office facilities and river improvements.

The public discourse, which included a public hearing about the proposal, generated hard feelings and skepticism among citizenry and at their May 3 meeting, members of the Select Board articulated a desire to put the sale of the tannery land back into their hands, eliminating the referendum vote. They cited the current process as cumbersome and too political. Subsequent to their approval, articles 6A and 6B were placed on the warrant.

At town meeting, opinions were cast supporting and opposing 6A, which provided the Select Board the authority to sell the tannery property without any further action by the voters. The sale, however, is required to be consistent with guiding principles recommended by the Tannery Redevelopment Work Group and approved by Camden voters in 2008. If a business proposes to purchase the tannery property upon terms that are inconsistent with the guiding principles, and the Select Board feels it is a proposal worth pursuing, the sale would have to be decided by special town meeting vote, according to Town Manager Roberta Smith.

“Voting no should not be hard,” said resident Leonard Lookner, who suggested such a power grab by government should “rattle the bone.” Advocating that approval of the final sale of the tannery land should remain in the hands of the voter, he said it is time to make government more responsible to the people it represents. “Think locally before you criticize globally,” he said.

Resident Doug Johnson also spoke against the approval of 6A: “People want to exercise their right to vote on the tannery,” he said.

Don White Jr., who was elected to the Select Board on June 14 but had yet to be sworn into office, opposed the measure, saying that in 2008, Camden voted by a 2 to 1 margin for maintaining control over the land’s sale.

Resident Jeff Dodge said the tannery cost the town $64,000 annually with interest payments.

“What’s the big deal,” he said. “Let’s let these people [Select Board] sell the property and collect some property taxes, maybe have some new jobs. I don’t want to pay $64,000 a year.” He spoke against the idea of siting a park there.

“We have plenty of them,” he said. “I just want it sold. It’s a stupid piece of ugly property. Sell it.”

Resident Anita Brosius-Scott said she had been embarrassed by the tone of the tannery debate. She noted that there was a thoughtful process to determine parameters ensuring “we wouldn’t have a buyer we wouldn’t want to see there.”

Donald Herrick asked why the tannery land is not put out to bid like other town properties. No one answered that question.

Dave Thomas said the tannery sale was developing into the “Camden Follies, Act II.” “If we are serious about selling the property, vote yes,” he said.

Resident Philip Conkling said the tannery had been attracted to Camden more than 50 years ago to help employ and generate business. He said he was all for the vox populi but believed the Select Board has the best interests of the town at heart.

“I look at these people [board members],” he said. “I’ll take the bet on them.”

Nancy Caudle-Johnson said those present at town meeting did not fully represent the 1,600 who voted in 2008 in favor of referendum sale.

“It is an end run,” she said. “The Select Board decided they would have a vote at town meeting, which many people cannot come to…. This is not a fair, democratic way to revisit a democratic decision.”

She said the notion that some citizens believe public opposition to B.D’ Turman’d caused the deal to fail was wrong, “that somehow we who spoke up deprived everybody a chance to vote is preposterous. They could not fit their buildings on the land. It was a big mess all the way around. That is why we should not allow them [the Select Board] to sell.”

And, she said, “all the parks don’t need to be on the right side of town.”

Three years ago, 1,745 Camden voters “decided on what was going to be done with the property. They can’t be here tonight. We just can’t turn that around,” she said.

Robert Spencer referred to the three branches of government, and the reasons for checks and balances.

“There’s probably not an executive branch in government opposed to getting rid of Congress because things could get done more smoothly,” he said. “I like systems and am kind of in favor of sticking with it.”

Paul Cartwright said he favored getting the property sold and the right people in there.

“It’s not selling because it’s really a tough climate out there,” he said.

It is more fair to vote with an all-day affair, and making absentee ballots available.

“We should honor those people not here tonight,” he said.

Skip Bates said economic development is challenging and difficult for any community. Municipalities put hurdles in place to “protect our quality of life,” he said. “We’ve got quality of life here. It’s a great place to live.”

He said brownfields scare off 90 percent of developers, and the conditions in place on the tannery “up the ante and make it so you get the cream of the crop of developers.”

A referendum will drive away any developer, he said. And, it is not a good site for a park.

Barbara F. Dyer said the town elected the board to do a town job, and “I think we should let them do it.”

Peter Gross said there were strict processes and regulations in place to ensure development compliant with town and state expectations. He referred to Camden’s own planning board process, as well as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection permitting process. He also referenced the guiding principles governing development of the tannery property.

“I think I can forgive that one little step that is a big stumbling block to what could provide jobs for citizens,” he said.

Resident Melissa Marchetti questioned whether those principles were recommended, and not required. Cartwright said they were at the discretion of the town to employ.

Select Board member Deb Dodge said there are restrictions included in the Apollo reuse plan that limit the type of development there, and protect the Riverwalk and trees.

Following the discussion, Moderator Don Gross called for a vote, and because it was close, a count was taken, with 71 to 60 favoring approval of 6A.

With that passage, the Select Board now has the authority to sell the property, subject to redevelopment guidelines and requirements that were passed by voters in 2008. The Apollo Tannery Redevelopment Work Group at that point had recommended that the Select Board consider the guiding principles, “if and when they sell the site for re-development purposes.”

The passage of 6A made consideration of Article 6B irrelevant. That article read that “In the event that the voters fail to approve Article 6A immediately preceding this article, shall the town vote to authorize the select board to dispose of tax acquired property, excluding the former Apollo Tannery property, in any manner which the Select Board deems in the best interest of the Town of Camden.”

In other town meeting business

Resident Rick Knowlton suggested the town amend Article 10, which asked the town to expend $6,206,657 on municipal functions this coming year, July 1 to June 30. He proposed reducing the town’s budgeted $45,000 in contingency by $4,152 to bring expenditures below the LD 1 spending cap. LD 1 attempts to limit how much municipal budgets can grow from year to year. If they grow beyond a figure established by a state calculation, a town must ask voters for permission to exceed that cap.

For this coming fiscal year, Camden’s cap was set at $164,837 more than what is being spent this year. But the budget exceeded that cap by $4,152; reasons cited included making improvements at Laite Beach and painting the inside of the sand/salt shed.

Knowlton said the budget committee works hard to keep the town spending under the LD 1 cap and following a moderate discussion that included the wisdom of spending down contingency, voters approved the amendment and reduced their 2011-2012 budget to $6,202,457.

After voting to include Tom Armbrecht, Tom Jackson, Steve Neil, George Forristal, Kelly Macomber, Parker Laite Sr., Stephanie Clapp, Colleen Duggan, Peter Lindquist and Susan Dorr to the Budget Committee, and Ed Collins, Anita Brosius-Scott, Dave Nazaroff, Cheryl Oliveri-Daly and Karen Grove to the Budget Committee Nominating Committee, citizens adjourned town meeting.

Then, the Select Board convened after Heard and White were sworn into office by Don Gross, and elected Martin Cates its new chairman, with Morgan Laidlaw as vice chairman. The board also reappointed its attorney Kelly, police and fire chiefs Randy Gagne and Chris Farley, and Overseer of the Poor Roberta Smith for another year.