By Steven Fletcher
ESSEX — After 31/2 hours of debate and two votes, Town Meeting gave the Selectmen a go-ahead to sell town property on the southern part of Conomo Point — but only after passing an amendment that requires them to sell the lots for no less than their appraised value.
Officials and some residents said the sales were necessary. Both for complying with a Department of Environmental Protection order of conditions that requires Essex to reduce septic flow on the point, and for closing a chapter of the town's long and contentious struggle over what to do with Conomo Point. But others said the sales weren't necessary and the town should pursue other options that retain public land, improve public access, and change the septic gallons allowed by state Title 5.
Some 450 voters packed the Essex Elementary School gym Monday night and made their way through just a handful of the 40 articles on the warrant for their Annual Town Meeting. Officials continued the meeting to tonight , also at 7:30 p.m. in the school gym.
Town Meeting dealt with several minor articles and an article proposing a Northern Conomo Point Zoning District as well as the article allowing sale of point property. The town voted to elect the surveyor of bark and lumber, receive town reports, approve the Fiscal 2013 wage and salary scale, and indefinitely postponed an article allocating funds to pay unpaid bills.
Article One let the Selectmen sell 41 lots on the southern half of the point. Town Meeting initially voted it down 253 in favor compared to 197 opposed. The article required a two-thirds vote. But the amendment adding appraised value as a floor price — made by resident Stuart Pratt — brought the article back for reconsideration. Town Meeting passed 296-99.
Selectmen Jeff Jones said that selling 41 lots on the southern part of the point will get Essex down to 10,000 gallons of septic flow as required by a Department of Environmental Protection order of conditions. The DEP extended the town's time to comply in December. The exception from Chapter 30B bidding law, Jones said, is a preferential way of selling the property, rather than putting it all out on the open market at the same time and risk lowering the sale price. The exemption allows the town to offer the right of first refusal on each lot to the tenants.
"We're not going to give it away, we can't give it away," Jones said. "We have to get fair market value."
Southern Conomo Point zoning sets locks many of the lots in seasonal use, and the selectmen intend to put a deed restriction on the properties for seasonal use as well. Only 7 lots will be year round residences.
Mark Hall, a resident, said he approves the sale, provided the selectmen establish the fair market value and don't go below it. The appraisal of the southern properties, Hall said, was one of the best he has seen. But, the value of the land should include improvements on it, he added, which the town asserts that it owns.
"Fair market value as established by appraisal should be the minimum that the Board of Selectmen offer to current tenants," Hall said. "In the event that residents don't purchase, put it out in the open market and let the market determine what the value is. It's going on 20 years, it's time to put this to bed."
Bruce Fortier, a resident, said Town Meeting shouldn't approve the article without some explanation of how the sale works. If the article doesn't state it, he said, its because the town officials don't want residents to know how the sale will work. It gives the selectmen unlimited and unrestrained authority, and will eventually lead to year round residences and a burden on the tax base, he said.
"Once they get this through," he said. "They can call a special town meeting in July when a lot of Essex residents are on vacation and a lot of people from Indiana are here to vote, and with just 50 per cent majority they can amend this requirement, and your land is gone."
The initial motion on Article 1 failed for lack of a two thirds majority vote. It was then amended by Stuart Pratt to include that the Selectmen couldn't sell for less than the appraised value.
Fortier added that the DEP has never mandated selling or renting property on Conomo Point, and said they would prefer the area vacant, rather than occupied with septic flow. If the town sells the properties, officials said, cedes control of them and comes within the 10,000 gallon threshold.
The DEP, said Selectwoman Susan Coviello doesn't require selling any properties, or knocking them down for that matter. The agency, she said, doesn't care how the twon gets down to 10,000 gallons, it just has to get there.
"Change the law," said John Guren, a resident, "there's something wrong with it (being) used as an excuse to effectuate a sale of property that we don't need to sell."
Title 5, he said, doesn't make any sense. Guren said the town should file legislation for an exemption from Title 5's 10,000 limit. He said he didn't want to be forced into selling property because of Title 5.
"If the DEP changed that threshold it would send consent decrees tumbling into the abyss," said Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki, "they hold that threshold sacred."
Changing it, he said, wouldn't work as the legislature consults the DEP commissioner when deciding to change DEP related legislation. The DEP, he said is a real factor in the sale of the properties.
"The Town of Essex can't kick can down the road anymore, there's a brick and the can and it has EPA's name on it," said Ray Randall, conomo point commissioner and former selectman.
Town meeting also unanimously sent the Northern Conomo point zoning plan, Article 2, back to the Planning Board last night. Mark Lynch, member of the Conomo Point Planning Committee said the plan needed further discussion. The plan, he said, subdivides the Northern half of the point, as a way to section out property for public access, and around 90 bedrooms of housing the town planned to rent. Going into the meeting, the Planning Board said it did not recommend approving the article.
"It's not a lack of planning," Lynch said. "People just have different conceptions of what that plan could be."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.