ESSEX — A routine reauthorization vote became anything but Wednesday night, with a Special Town Meeting article seeking an exemption from the state competitive bidding law gaining approval by just three votes, on a count of 144-141.
The Special Town Meeting was called to reauthorize a November 2010 vote that sought an exemption to the state's Chapter 30B law in a move designed to allow the town to offer right of first refusal to leaseholders to purchase land at Conomo Point.
The Legislature approved allowing Essex to offer short-term leases to the Conomo Point tenants without going through the bidding process, but took longer approving the option for sale.
According to State Sen. Bruce Tarr, since the legislature acted on just part of the petition, the town needs a second one to act on any longer-term deals.. Also, with the vote more than a year ago, the Legislature wanted to be sure the vote still expressed the will of the current Essex Town Meeting, Tarr said.
The Essex selectmen expected that, given the vote was simply reaffirming a prior vote that passed overwhelmingly, the article would pass quickly and with minimal interest, and 200 seats were set up in the Essex Elementary School gym.
Close to 300 people arrived to voice their opinion about the article, many speaking against it.
"Until you open it up to a very competitive process, you will not maximize proceeds to the town," said Mark Hall, who works in real estate.
Many of the speakers during the meeting agreed with Hall, saying the town could make more money off the properties if they did not offer them first to the tenants, who in many cases have lived on Conomo Point for generations.
Selectman Jeffrey Jones said the images of large profits from an open process were largely mirages.
"You will not get the bids you expect on the open market," said Jones. "Everyone knows there's a cloud over it. The tenants have a vested interest in the property."
Much of the debate centered on the question of what constitutes a "fair market value," with most of those who spoke in opposition claiming that only soliciting bids can determine how much a property is worth and belittling the likelihood of getting a good price from an appraisal.
Several of those who spoke against the article, including Ed Neal, said that an appraisal would not get the town a high enough price, and cited the fact that appraised values for the bridge leases were accepted by 98 percent of the tenants. Neal said such a high rate of acceptance was proof that the prices were too low — a charge Jones denied.
"It's six times the previous rent, and the reason they (signed the leases) is because otherwise they wouldn't get the right of first refusal," said Jones.
When the bridge lease amounts were announced, the tenants widely decried the prices as unfair and many said they signed the leases under duress.
Finance Committee Chairman Jeffrey Soulard said that, if the town were unable to offer preference for the current tenants, the town would open itself up to legal liabilities.
"Without the 30b exemption, the tenants will proceed with litigation," said Soulard.
Some believe the tenants could have a solid case; the tenants have long claimed ownership of the structures, though the town owns the land. Town officials have more recently claimed the town owns the structures as well, but tenants pay both property taxes and rent on the properties.
The bridge leases also explicitly offered the right of first refusal to the tenants, and many said it was the primary reason they agreed to pay the dramatically increased rent. Those increases will add $700,000 to town revenues in 2013.
After a vote by standing was determined to be impossible to count, voters placed paper ballots, resulting in the final tally of the article passing 144-141. Many present noted that if the recent campaign to question the voting rights of Conomo Point tenants had not taken place, the margin would have been far wider.
Tarr introduced the petition to the legislature Thursday, and said he expected action on it in the next few days.
The close vote upset many Conomo Point residents, including year-round resident Ellen Hull.
"Vote 'yes' because it is the morally right thing to do," she said. "Doesn't that matter?"
Stephanie Bergman can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.