Times Record: Councilors, developers decry ‘secret meeting’ (Feb. 7, 2014)

BRUNSWICK

Town Council Chairman Benet Pols held a closed-door meeting with an engineer and two developers asking them to reconsider their plan to build a road at Cook’s Corner.

The Jan. 29 Town Hall meeting — confirmed by two participants who said they had not been previously notified of it — rankled some councilors, who said it’s not their job to approach applicants who have official business before the town.

For their part, the developers — Jim Howard, president and CEO of Priority Real Estate Group, and George Schott, CEO of Schott Development — were “upset” by the meeting, and by Pols’ request, according to two officials who participated belatedly in the meeting.

The meeting also likely violated state open meetings laws, which require public notice of all proceedings if they are a meeting of a body or agency consisting of three or more persons.

No public notice was issued. At least three councilors said they had no knowledge of the meeting prior to it, including Councilor Gerald Favreau, who said he “stumbled onto it” while getting his mail at Town Hall.

“It didn’t go well,” said District 1 Town Councilor David Watson, whose district includes the proposed road. “I didn’t feel like it was a positive meeting.”

Watson said he heard about the 3 p.m. meeting at approximately 2 p.m., from Favreau, who represents adjacent District 5.

Watson said Pols greatly overstepped his role as Town Council chairman and, according to one participant, Watson “told Pols to never again request a closed-door meeting” with any developer.

“I felt it was very disenchanting — and I’m being nice — to think that a fellow councilor would hold a closed-door meeting on things that are vital to my district,” Watson said.

Pols said Thursday he called the meeting in order to “narrow the agenda” for a planned Feb. 10 workshop on road proposals at Cook’s Corner.

“It was (Town Manager) Gary (Brown)’s suggestion after discussing the proposed agenda” that Howard and Schott be approached.

“Right now, the project is a lot of generalities that, if we build this road, businesses will come,” Pols said. “I don’t think that, by going slow … we’re not stopping anything from happening” with the project, he said. “I was just curious about it.”

At issue is the town’s longheld desire to build a connector road to revitalize the Cook’s Corner area.

The town has examined plans to build connector roads at Cook’s Corner for at least the past 15 years. Officials have said construction could be paid for by an expiring tax-increment financing district and the planning, design and engineering work could be funded with fees levied on “big box” stores.

The operative plan for Howard and Schott — first proposed in 1998 — would build an outlet road to funnel traffic from Gurnet Road by the entrance to Sears, past Regal Cinema and through where the former Atrium Inn once stood, before crossing Thomas Point Road and linking with Tibbetts Drive.

Construction of that road — estimated at $1.4 million to $1.6 million — is intended to relieve traffic intensity and stimulate new economic development in the area, Brown said in December 2013.

Advocates say the road comports with the town’s Master Plan, and would involve little to no municipal funds to plan or build.

Design and planning for the project was paid for using “impact fees” on warehouse retailers such as Lowe’s Home Improvement and Walmart when they moved into Brunswick. About $176,000 existed in that account in late 2013.

As for construction, “We would utilize tax increment financing dollars to fund any bonds associated with this road,” Brown has said.

An existing industrial park TIF district at Cook’s Corner — which is about to expire — could be extended, or a new district could be placed in the area where the road would be cut in anticipation of new development that would rise along its path.

Watson said the road would provide sidewalks and reduce traffic flow in residential areas while providing access to the developers’ lots so businesses can be built there.

“I’m definitely in favor of it,” he said in December.

“If the plans that are in place go into full effect over the three- to five-year period, we would see an increase in taxable property of more than $500,000,” Watson said Thursday. “That’s significant. And I asked (Howard and Schott) whether their plans that that road would create 75 to 200 jobs were accurate, and they said that they were.”

Pols said he wanted to ask the developers about a secondary Cook’s Corner road project — one he said would benefit the community at large by connecting Gurnet Road with Brunswick Landing from the east, near Perryman Drive.

“That’s been a consideration for the town … that there be access to the base from the east, a road that could get people from one end of town to the other, or at least one end of the base to the other,” Pols said. “I was hopeful there was the possibility that the projects could be put together.”

“It was a meeting I walked into thinking I would be meeting with constituents — Jim Howard and George Schott — to try and narrow the agenda for the workshop,” Pols said.

Participants in the meeting weren’t necessarily against Pols’s proposal, but they were miffed at the vehemence with which he advanced it.

One participant called Pols’s demeanor “patronizing,” “condescending” and “very dismissive” of the developers’ concerns — chiefly, that the project currently on the table be pursued, as it had the best chance of leveraging business development in Cook’s Corner.

Asked if the meeting could endanger development at Cook’s Corner, Watson said “I pray to God that it doesn’t,” a sentiment echoed by Favreau, who said he was “floored” that the meeting took place.

“This project hasn’t even come to us yet as a council,” Favreau said. “There’s design review, Planning Board (proceedings) still … a whole kitand kaboodle before we even get involved in the process. I’m still upset about it.”

Pols said he was “surprised” to see Favreau and Watson at the meeting.

Howard declined comment on the Jan. 29 meeting. In the past, he has said that, without the connector road, parcels owned by his company and Schott’s would be “all but inaccessible for development.”

“Without it, we can’t get power, natural gas, water, sewer and other utilities to the land,” Howard has said.

“Our plan is still to donate the land on Thomas Point Road to Community Ice,” he said in November, referring to fitful plans to site a public skating rink in Cook’s Corner.

“But, in order to do that, the connector road has to be built first. Not just for our own projects, but that road is the keystone to a lot of economic development at Cook’s Corner.”

Brunswick issued a request-for-engineering proposal for the connector road in November. Five proposals were received by the Dec. 19 deadline; staff have been instructed to choose one and present it to the Town Council.

Schott was unable to be reached by press time.

Brown — departing as town manager by March 31 in a rift with the Town Council — also declined comment on the meeting and didn’t answer questions about what was discussed.

Pols and two participants in the meeting said it was Brown who requested the meeting on behalf of Pols.

No minutes were taken at the meeting, which — with Brown, Watson, Favreau and Pols in attendance — is an apparent violaton of state open meetings laws.

Pols said open meetings laws were not broken because “our legal opinions have said that we have to have enough councilors to transact business — a quorum — in order for us to be in violation of open meetings laws.”

“But I really don’t want to bicker with people about that.”

On the role of Town Council chairman, Watson — who has represented District 1 for the past 12 years — said “they are not, and should not, be acting as town managers, admninistrators, or anything.”

The role of chairman, said Watson, is to run meetings and establish an agenda for meetings.

Favreau agreed. “The process is broken,” he said, and he promised “I’m going to be vocal” at upcoming forums in which the road is discussed.

One of those forums — a Town Council workshop on the project slated for Monday, Feb. 10 — is being postponed, Pols said, because of other pressing issues, such as the selection process for hiring a new town manager.

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