UNITY — With plenty of discussion, residents passed all but one of the 60 articles on the warrant, some with amendments, in a four-plus-hour meeting at Unity Elementary School March 26. The article that failed, which came at the very end of the meeting, was a proposed six-month moratorium on commercial solar arrays that Select Board members said they needed in order to gather information and write an ordinance governing the arrays.

Residents agreed to raise $768,661 from taxes, up just 0.58% from $764,238 the previous year. They approved total municipal expenditures of $1,457,338, an increase of 6.6% from last year’s $1,365,163. Because additional expenditures could be approved at a planned special town meeting in June, these numbers may not be final. They do not include the town’s share of Regional School Unit 3 and county budgets.

There was considerable discussion about the moratorium, with some residents at first concerned that the solar array at Michael Murch’s farm would be affected. Select Board member Penny Sampson said it would not be affected, because Murch already had a permit.

Some people were concerned about losing open space to solar projects or owners abandoning arrays once their useful life is over. Others countered that those who are farming now might want an alternative later on and that a solar farm was preferable to a development with several houses. At one point, Murch himself got up and said that having a solar installation on his property was keeping him in business as a farmer. He added that the company that owns the installation would remove all the equipment if he decided to end his contract, and the land would go back to fields. Sampson told The Republican Journal March 28 that the board plans to bring a commercial solar ordinance to the June meeting, but wanted residents to get to vote on a moratorium beforehand. She said she thinks sentiment in town runs about 50-50. A hearing on the ordinance will be scheduled for sometime in May.

Among the more unusual items in the warrant was an article asking to “unappropriate” $50,860 from TIF funds that had previously been allocated for a revolving loan fund. Sampson explained that there had been only one applicant for the monies. She added that Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, of which Unity is a member, has its own revolving loan fund and is in a better position to administer the loans. The money is to be returned to TIF funds.

Most of the articles generated at least some back-and-forth. Getting particular attention was an item that asked to spend $56,750 to repair the Farwell Bridge on Berry Road. The bridge is currently closed. Select Board Chairman Dan McCormick said the state had told the town the bridge is redundant and therefore ineligible for repair by the Department of Transportation. He said there was no guarantee that the proposed repairs would extend the bridge’s life for a specified amount of time.

A resident who works for DOT said if the town asked, the department would come and explain the situation with the bridge. She also said federal money would be coming available for this type of thing, and she would be willing to help the town apply for it.

After a resident asked to table the article until the June special town meeting, Sampson said it had taken months to get the recently received engineering report on the bridge and the cost to repair it had already increased by 10%. If the article was put off, she said, “you could be looking at another year to fix the bridge,” and the price could go up further.

When it came time to consider an article asking the town to accept a gift of 15 acres of land next to Pond 1 Cemetery for cemetery expansion, a few residents objected to using all of the land for burials, suggesting instead that some of it could be put to another use or leased to bring revenue to the town. Sampson replied that the town plans to have the parcel hayed, but added that the donor wanted it used for cemetery expansion, and the town must honor that. In addition, newly elected Select Board member Tim Parker Jr., who maintains cemeteries in several area towns, said the other cemeteries in town were running out of room, and the land would be needed in the ensuing years.

Because the town budgeted $250,000 from excise to retire the first road loan, the amount for summer roads increased by 18.7%, from $285,028 last year to $338,200 for the current year. McCormick said there would also be money in that item for sealing cracks on paved roads.

Another item that saw a significant increase was salaries for town officials, which grew 9.8% from $78,061 last year to $85,682 for this year. When a resident asked who got a raise, Sampson replied, “pretty much everybody,” but said she did not recall the specific amounts for individual employees.

Unity resident David Smith, standing, takes over for moderator Don Newell, who had to leave the town meeting unexpectedly March 26. He is flanked by, from left, Select Board member Tim Parker Jr., Clerk Kari Hunt and Select Board members Penny Sampson and Dan McCromick. Photo by Sarah E. Reynolds

There was a moment in the middle of the meeting that called for some quick thinking by Select Board members and others. After starting off seemingly fine, moderator Don Newell appeared to become confused and had to leave. The board quickly called a 5-minute break and drafted David Smith, who had spoken knowledgeably about procedure earlier in the meeting, to take over. Then deputy moderator Pat Clark passed her duties to Smith, who asked those present to give a round of applause for Newell for his years of service as moderator.

Several people spoke before the meeting took up the warrant, including Jane Sullivan of Unitel, who talked the company’s recent purchase by Idaho-based Direct Communications, saying the new owner’s focus is “closing the digital divide.” She also noted that no Unitel employees lost their jobs in the takeover.

Political speakers addressing the meeting included Todd Boisvert, Searsport police chief running for Waldo County Sheriff, and Lt. Matt Curtis, who spoke on behalf of Chief Deputy Jason Trundy, also running for sheriff. Also speaking were House District 38 candidates Benjamin Hymes, Republican of Waldo, Robin Stanicki, Democrat of Unity, and Betsy Garrold of Knox, a member of the Green Independent party, and state Sen. Chip Curry, D-Waldo, who is running for reelection.

The Spirit of America Award was presented to the Ecology Learning Center and the town’s Barry Bowl volunteerism award went to Larry King of the Market at Unity for his many efforts on behalf of the town. In addition, Tony Avila was recognized for his service on the Select Board; Tim Parker Jr. won the open seat in the March 25 election.

A special town meeting is planned for June. Town Clerk Kari Hunt said the agenda would include ordinance updates, funding for self-contained breathing apparatus for the Fire Department, and other items. The date has yet to be set.

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