Frenchville moves ahead with a revote on controversial Pelletier Avenue
FRENCHVILLE, Maine — Selectmen voted Tuesday, Sept. 5, to schedule a special town meeting to let residents vote once again on whether or not the town should spend any tax money on Pelletier Avenue.
Residents in June voted 60 to 26 to cease all upkeep, including snow removal, along a stretch of the road.
Caribou Superior Court Justice William Stokes, however, invalidated that result in August, following a challenge by former selectman John Ezzy, who lives on the road and who claimed there were voting irregularities at the June town meeting.
The section of road has been at the center of a controversy for more than a year regarding its ownership. Members of the Ouellette family, who own agricultural land along the road, claim that part of Pelletier Avenue is on their property and that no legal deeds exist giving the town ownership.
Selectmen agreed Sept. 5 to hold a new special town meeting on Nov. 14, based on what board chair Craig Lawrence said was a required 45-day waiting period before residents could vote on the original citizen petition that called for a secret ballot vote on the Pelletier Avenue issue.
Language in the Maine Municipal Association’s town meeting and elections manual, which references several Maine statutes, states that a petition must be submitted at least 45 days prior to an election which calls for a secret ballot.
However, the judge’s order setting aside the June 12 vote stipulates that the revote shall take place within 30 days. That order was signed by Stokes on Aug. 18 and received at the Frenchville Town Office on Aug. 28, according to Town Manager Ryan E. Pelletier.
The Frenchville selectmen chose to use the date the town office received Stokes’ order, and not when the petition was originally submitted in April, as the start of the 45-day window.
Thursday, Pelletier said the date of Nov. 14 was selected in order to provide the normal two weeks public notice and the minimum 45-day waiting period for a secret ballot. Selectmen were following the advice of the town’s attorney, Richard Currier, in following this process, according to Pelletier.
Town officials have since scheduled a public hearing on the matter, as required by law, prior to the special town meeting. That hearing has been tentatively scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Town Office.
The question to be put to voters remains the same.
“Do you want to use Town of Frenchville taxpayer dollars and Town funds to continue the paving, improvement, maintenance and repair” of the section of Pelletier Avenue from its intersection with Starbarn Avenue to where it meets the Madawaska townline?
Meanwhile, lawyers for the town and Calvin Ouellette, who filed a civil suit in Caribou Superior Court over ownership of about three quarters of a mile of Pelletier Avenue, continue to negotiate a settlement in the case.
During a heated public comment period at the start of Tuesday’s select board meeting, Ezzy spoke from a prepared statement, citing reasons why he thinks court and town records indicate that the road is public and should be maintained by the town.
Ezzy said the board, town manager and some residents have “wasted time” and filed “illegal lawsuits” in order to delay any work being done on the road.
“What do you want us to do? It’s in the court’s hands,” selectman Yvon Dube said.
Frenchville resident Paul Bernier, speaking from the floor, said it was his understanding that the town had come to an understanding with the Ouellette family regarding future access and maintenance.
“What happened? Why are we here?” asked Bernier.
“The (road maintenance) petition is still valid,” Dube said, adding that means selectmen are required to move ahead with the revote.
Ezzy disputed this, commenting that selectmen have discretion to do what is in the town’s best interest.
Lawrence said that, while the outline of an agreement with the Ouellettes was reached earlier this summer, not all of the conditions have yet been met. Further, Currier, the town’s attorney, has advised selectmen to refrain from discussing any details about the mediation efforts until an agreement is implemented, Lawrence said.
Ezzy pointed out that the Ouellettes could still withdraw the petition and the town could then avoid having to go through another vote. If the parties have settled on an arrangement, Ezzy asked, why have the Ouellettes not withdrawn the petition?
No one from the Ouellette family was present at the meeting to respond to Ezzy’s query. However, Nicole St. Pierre, a family friend and one of the people who circulated a petition earlier this year to remove Ezzy from the select board, simply said, “It’s a process.”
Michelle Sirois, who lives on Pelletier Avenue with her husband Carl, spoke to the selectmen about what she believes would happen if voters chose to halt maintenance and essentially close the road.
“In my mind, you folks are responsible for getting a (school) bus to pick up our son,” she said.
The couple purchased the land in 2000 and built a home. During all the real estate transactions and building permitting process no one mentioned that the road ownership was in question. It appears, she indicated, the permits were either given under false pretenses or the road is in fact a public way.
“We are struck in the middle,” she said. “Will my son have to wear snowshoes,” to walk to a bus stop on a nearby plowed road, she asked.
“The people voted (in June) to stop spending money on the road,” Dube pointed out. They will have an opportunity to consider that option once again on Nov. 14, he added.
“Then, will the people reimburse us for lost (property) value,” Ezzy asked.
“We are not going to discuss that tonight,” Lawrence replied.
According to Ezzy, his residence and two others on Pelletier Avenue have a collective market value of about $1.5 million.
“If the road is defunded as proposed by the petition, that would mean that the town would have to appropriate somewhere between $350,000 and $600,000,” in order to compensate those property owners. Diminished value formulas dictate that the reduction in value due to the loss of municipal maintenance of the road can vary from 25 to 40 percent, according to Ezzy.
Dave Pelletier, another Pelletier Avenue resident, asked if newly elected selectman Clarence Roy should recuse himself from any vote or discussion about Pelletier Avenue, considering Roy was a plaintiff in 2016 in a case against the town regarding maintenance of the road.
The motion, in which Roy sought a temporary injunction prohibiting the town from maintaining or improving the road, was eventually denied.
“There is no vote tonight, so there is no need to abstain,” Lawrence replied, although Roy himself said nothing.
Roy did in fact vote later in the meeting on the motion setting the date for the revote on the road maintenance petition.
Following additional comments from Ezzy regarding previous court rulings and documents about the road’s status, Lawrence ended further public discussion.
“Mr. Ezzy, I’m not going to discuss it any further,” Lawrence said, cutting off Ezzy and closing the public comment period.
Lawrence, Dube and Roy voted in favor of the Nov. 14 special town meeting date. Absent from Tuesday’s meeting was selectman Jamie Voisine. A fifth selectman, Dan Collin, stepped down from the board last month.
The special meeting will start at 7 p.m. at the Community Center on Tuesday. Nov. 14.