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Voters will see community broadband, short-term rental registration and zoning changes on June ballot

By Susan Mustapich | Apr 23, 2021
Source: Zoom Video Conferencing Deb Hall, bottom right, provided background for a Midcoast Community Internet Interlocal Agreement Camden voters will see on the June 8 ballot.

CAMDEN — Voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on a Midcoast Community Internet Interlocal Agreement at the polls June 8 that will provide participating towns with the option to build and maintain a fiber-optic network to provide broadband services.

Broadband utility

Deb Hall of Rockport was the only speaker at a public hearing. The fiber-optic network, also referred to as broadband, will be open-access and cooperatively operated. Open access means various companies can pay to use the infrastructure, with the fees going to a regional utility.

The regional utility district, called the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, will be formed as a nonprofit by the municipalities of Camden and Rockport.

About a dozen towns want to be part of the coalition or regional utility, Hall said. This is more than Midcoast Community can accommodate. Once the Corporation's board forms, it will decide which other towns can be let in, she said.

The corporation is being formed now to receive funds the federal government is promising to distribute to the states for broadband internet. Federal funds held by the corporation will be similar to the down payment needed to obtain a loan to buy a house, according to Hall. The corporation will seek low-interest bonds.

Hall explained that local taxes will not pay for the design or construction of the new broadband infrastructure.

The open-access network should stimulate competition, and lower costs to broadband customers, according to Hall. She described the goal as "cheaper, faster, better. Fiber is the best technology out there and will be for years to come, she said.

Board member Marc Ratner said he has been going to the local broadband meetings, mostly as a cheerleader. "Deb has done the lions share of the work," he said. People have cable access now using copper wire, which is low speed, while broadband is high speed, he said. We’ll be able to invite many companies in and provide the best internet at the best prices.

Board Vice Chairwoman Alison McKellar asked Hall if it is correct that municipally owned networks are cheaper and faster.

Hall said there are plenty of examples where that is the case.

The communities are not going to be internet providers, she said. Explaining the financial model, she said the communities will own the fiber infrastructure and allow internet service providers to bid to provide services to residents. Companies charge the residents and pay a lease amount to the towns. The lease payments go towards paying off the bonds over time.

Any profit the broadband network makes will be reinvesting in the infrastructure, Hall said.

To date, the towns of Camden and Rockport have put in $35,000 each for start-up expenses.

Board members voted 5-0 to place the Midcoast Community Internet Interlocal Agreement on the warrant in June. Their unanimous recommendation of support will appear on the ballot.

Other federal funding

Town manager Audra Caler alerted the board that Knox County is set to receive $7.7 million in federal funding.

She urged board members to advocate for Knox County to use their funding for the broadband project.

The board should write a letter of support for the use of the funds and pick a representative to show up at the County Commissioner meetings to advocate for this, Caler said. The funds could be the initial seed funding needed to seek more grants for the buildout of the network, she said.

Caler explained that the $7.7 going to Knox County is based on population, and the assumption that counties operate in Maine the same way they do in other states.

But in Maine, municipalities, not the county, are responsible for infrastructure, she said, with broadband being a piece of new infrastructure that municipalities are working on.

If the money is not passed to be to the municipalities, it will not be used as intended, she said.

June ballot

The Select Board approved all the warrant items for the June 8 town meeting ballot. In addition to the regional broadband question, there are two zoning ordinances. Both are unanimously recommended by the Planning Board and Select Board.

One will consolidate the Wastewater Treatment plant into the Downtown Business district. Half of the plant is currently in that zone, and the other half is in the Traditional Village District.

Another zoning change amends commercial uses in the Coastal Residential District, by special exception, to allow new additions under 10,000 square feet. The amendment is written with conditions so it may only apply to a boatwork and storage building owned by Parker Laite Jr. He proposes to build a 5,000-square-foot addition to an existing building at 216 Belfast Road.

A proposed police ordinance will require registration of un-hosted short-term rental properties. Registration involves providing the name and address of owner, location of the property, local contact to call in an emergency and a fee.

The ordinance defines un-hosted rentals as "a short-term rental where the owner(s) of the property do not reside on property where the short-term rental is located, and it is not the owners' primary residence." A primary residence is defined as being occupied "for a minimum of six consecutive months plus one day."

The board's unanimous recommendation of the registration of un-hosted short-term rentals will appear on the ballot.

Another article will ask voters to appropriate $70,000 from funds raised by the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to be used to partially offset the cost of the Knowlton Street parking lot lease/purchase, and maintenance of downtown parking lots. This is unanimously recommended by the Select Board and Budget Committee.

Megunticook River project

The board renewed a one-year contract with Midcoast Conservancy, which is located in Edgecomb. The town will provide a $35,000 grant to fund Midcoast Conservancy's work on the Megunticook River Restoration project.

A memorandum of understanding describes the work to be done. The town and nonprofit organization will "work cooperatively in Maine’s Megunticook River to remove the Montgomery Dam and redesign of the Harbor Park Seawall."

Additional work involves exploring feasibility, and if possible, implementing projects that either remove additional dams or provide fish passage past five other barriers on the Megunticook River, according to the agreement.

Midcoast Conservancy is the fiscal agent for all funds related to this project, including grant funds awarded to the town of Camden and grant funds awarded to Midcoast Conservancy.

The nonprofit will be responsible for contracting and payments to implement the project and is the lead on media relations, issuing press releases and outreach.

Other business

The board approved victualer and lodging licenses for Abigail’s Inn, The Belmont Inn, Camden House of Pizza, and Oliver’s Bistro and applications for use of the Village Green by Bay Chamber Concerts and Knox County Housing Coalition.

Ratner asked the board to discuss the Village Green items separately. He asked if the town was following the stated intentions for the use of the Village Green.

Board member Taylor Benzie said the prohibited uses were commercial, and not intended to prevent not-for-profit organizations from using the Village Green. McKellar agreed the policies do not prevent not-for profit from the Village Green. She agreed that the Village Green policy had not been discussed in a long time and should be.

Becca Gildred of the Knox County Homeless Coalition said the organization is careful not to take fundraising money while on the Green, to abide by the rules and be a good community partner. Board member Jenna Lookner said precedent had been set by allowing the group to use the Village Green twice for their event.

McKellar agreed Village Green policy had not been discussed in a long time and should be. Board members approved the uses of the Village Green. Ratner said he was satisfied the issue was discussed.

Caler reported the town has an extension until December for using a 2019 Coastal Communities Grant. She said a community engagement process didn’t happen due to COVID and she hopes to do this within in the next few weeks.

She told the board that the Knox County Airport solar initiative would be the best option for Camden, and that the town would be the biggest user.

Falciani questioned how Caler could say it is the best option, asking "what is their model, what about the financials?" He was satisfied when Caler said the model is net energy billing.

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