Non-binding referendum: Board agrees to June vote on Salmon Point campground sale

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Despite calls to dismiss the whole idea and move on, the Bridgton Board of Selectmen voted 3–1 Tuesday to go forward with a nonbinding referendum for June asking voters whether the town should sell all but the beach property at the Salmon Point Campground on Long Lake.

Selectmen Bob McHatton wanted to wait until November to grant more time for public education on the vote, but most selectmen felt they needed to gauge voter opinion before knowing what to do next.

“The people have to realize that this wording is for a nonbinding referendum,” said Selectman Bernie King. “It merely gives us an idea of what the people want us to do,” and does not commit the town either way. Any formal proposal to sell the 40-acre campground, excluding the .3-acre point protruding into Long Lake, would have to come back to the voters, with specifics, before any sale could take place.

The referendum language will be reviewed by the town’s attorney and will return to the board for final action on April 23.

If the vote is yes, then the town could justify the time and expense of exploring the sale further. If the vote is no, selectmen then know they can move on to explore other recommendations contained in the Salmon Point Report created by the Community Development Committee.

“The language would not obligate the town to take the offer, even if it is $5 million,” said CDC member Mark Lopez. Fellow member Chuck Renneker agreed, saying, “The reason we brought this to you was not to sell, it was to research whether it was worth it to sell it.” CDC Chairman Mike Tarantino said his committee stands ready to hold public meetings and charettes up until the June 11 referendum to make sure residents know what they’ll be voting on.

The campground consists of three lots with a combined assessed value of around $1.7 million. The nonbinding referendum, as initially drafted by the CDC and later tweaked by Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, asks voters to authorize selectmen to solicit a request for proposals from parties who might want to purchase and develop the property. It also states:

“Any sale price for the non-beach area and parking must at a minimum sell for no less than $2 million and generate a minimum of $75,000 in property taxes within the first 12 months after the purchase and sale date.” If those conditions aren’t met, selectmen will reject the offer. In addition, the proposed warrant article states, “The Select Board retains the right to reject any and all proposals that it deems not to be in the best interest of the town of Bridgton.”

The referendum article includes a note stating that the beach areas and adjacent parking will be retained by the town “and deed-restricted, in perpetuity, against all future sale or development of the beach area.” The note also states that proceeds from the sale “will be retained in the Moose Pond Land Trust Fund, and any use of the funds will comply with the stipulated uses of the trust fund.”

Berkowitz reviewed a legal opinion the board had sought as to whether the land could even be sold at all, since it was bought with trust fund monies, and, if so, whether the proceeds had to go back to the trust fund or could be used for general municipal purposes.

Town Attorney Rick Spencer said that as long as it’s done with voter approval, “there is nothing that would prohibit the sale” of the backlands by the town — an opinion that might disappoint Peter Lowell, who spoke ardently against a sale last month, in part, by citing the careful restrictions put in place by the state on use of the trust funds by the Bureau of Parks and Public Lands.

Spencer also said that “although the issue is not free from doubt,” it was his opinion that any sale of backlands would be okay, as long as the town amended its “Ordinance Concerning Withdrawals from Certain Trust Funds” to permit the use of the principal — and not just the interest, as it now stipulates — to acquire and develop other public lands for use by the public.

A formal opinion is still being awaited on the matter from the state Attorney General’s office.

Resident Corinne Davis was opposed to the referendum, saying the 51-lot campground the town bought in 1987 for $650,000 is “one of the greatest jewels we have in this town, and it would be a sin to lose it.” She worried that access to the beach would eventually be lost if the area around it is developed privately, and wondered about parking. Under the CPC plan, the current parking lot area would be sold, and beach parking would be provided elsewhere.

“Until we hear from the taxpayers, this board isn’t going to do anything,” said Selectman Doug Taft, sitting in as chairman because the board voted to recuse Chairman Paul Hoyt, who leases a campground site.

Renneker said there are some in town who wonder, “Why should we subsidize 51 homeowners from away” who rent their sites for the entire summer, when in prior years, when Bridgton had more transient short-term campers, those transient campers spent “many times more money” at local businesses.

Hoyt, speaking as a resident from the audience, agreed with McHatton’s belief that a vote should be delayed until November. “There’s lots of good questions and it’s even more important to not move ahead at all on this in June. We’ve got so many things that people just don’t understand,” including parking issues and the estimate of return on sale of the land.

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