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Residents question 99-year lease for airport

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FRYEBURG, Maine — Skeptical residents at a June 18 public hearing questioned a proposed warrant article seeking 99-year lease for the Eastern Slope Regional Airport.

The article and others will be voted on by secret ballot on July 14 from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. at the David & Doris Hastings Community Center at 59 Recreation Drive. Absentee balloting is also available, and encouraged by the town.

June 18’s public hearing was on articles 33, 34 and 36. No. 33 is to allow for a solar facility at the airport; No. 34 calls for a 99-year lease for the airport; and No. 36 calls for tax assistance for seniors over 70 years old.

The June 18 Zoom hearing, attended by 19 people, was chaired by Selectman Kimberly Clarke. The most controversial article was the 99-year lease.

Airport Authority member Gene Bergoffen explained that the authority has to renew its lease every seven years, and that makes it difficult to get lenders to invest in the airport.

“A perfect example tonight is the solar situation. If we had Article 34 (in place), it would have been clear how this could have been managed.”

Portland-based Dirigo Solar wants to build a 4.99-megawatt solar facility on the north side of the runway. It would require a 40-year lease and cost about $7 million to build.

Clarke noted that if Article 34 passed, projects like the solar project would still require town approval because of its price tag.

Resident Nora Schwarz questioned the authority’s management of the land and if the town should give them more.

“These people at the airport for all the wonders that they provide us with, also managed to allow a tree clearing at the runway 14 approach that they were subsequently fined for because they clear-cut around Round Pond unnecessarily,” said Schwarz.

“So why as an investor in this business, because I am, as a taxpayer, do I want to give this business a 99-year consent to do whatever they want up to and including $2.5 million?” she asked, referring to a dollar amount listed in Article 34.

Clarke replied that the lease could be written to protect the town. She also said she would like to protect the land from being developed as something that could be more damaging than an airport.

Bergoffen said the Department of Enviromental Protection mandated that they cut trees near Round Pond and that they were fined because used machinery rather cutting the trees by hand. 

But Schwarz pointed to draft authority minutes from January that said the airport authority did not apply to Maine DEP for a permit to cut and the cost of permits and fines will be about $30,000.

“The Authority intends to see if the Mulford Fund will be able to grant $30,000 this year to cover the cost,” said the Jan. 9 meeting.

Clarence Mulford (1883-1956), author of the “Hopalong Cassidy” novels, lived in Fryeburg the latter part of his life.  

According to Clarence E. Mulford Trust trustee David Hastings, the trust is a private foundation whose primary beneficiary is Fryeburg Academy. It has about $12.5 million. Last year it gave about $611,000 in grants.

He said $30,000 went to the town last year with the recommendation it be used for DEP permitting at the airport. Then $8,500 was recommended to go to general  operations.

Schwarz said: “As far as I’m concerned, that is an indication of dirty pool. The Mulford fund that until I had the opportunity to read this, I always thought was always on the side of the law and the best thing for the town of Fryeburg.”

Bergoffen told the Sun Friday that the Mulford Fund was not used to cover the cost of fines but was used to pay permitting and related work to “remedy” DEP’s concerns.

In total, 7 acres were cut, including 2 acres on private property and the rest was on airport land, the minutes say.

Conservation commission member Sherri Billings also highlighted the fine amount and the length of the  proposed lease.

“And the 99 years seems twice as much as what you actually need to do the solar project,” said Billings.

“You (the airport) also are right on top of our aquifer, and not too long ago, trying to bring in manufacturing, which included a bottling plant. I think 99 years is too long, and I’m not trusting, and I do not want to vote for it.”

Resident Curtis Smith said he agreed with Billings.

Bergoffen replied that if the town chose to close the airport, the town would have to reimburse FAA for all the money it spent.

Clarke said reimbursing the FAA would cost millions of dollars.

“(There is) not a pure alternative of managing it as a conservation area because it is an airport,” said Bergoffen.

Greg Huang-Dale said 99 years is longer than everyone present will be alive. He questioned whether the town should commit to that.

“This seems like we’re signing off for our children and perhaps our children’s children,” said Huang-Dale.

On Thursday, selectmen voted 4-0 (Richard Murray was absent) that in view of the comments, if Article 34 passes, they will create a committee to help write the lease that would include members of the public.

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