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Selectmen claim legal exposure, spiraling costs with Pelletier Avenue road project

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — Town Manager Ryan E. Pelletier and selectmen are concerned that the town is exposing itself to lawsuits and an accumulation of unexpected costs regarding the ongoing issues surrounding the Pelleter Avenue road project.

Selectmen and the town manager discussed those concerns at a Dec. 21 board meeting, according to a video recording of the meeting posted on Frenchville resident Nicole St. Pierre’s Facebook page.

Pelletier confirmed on Tuesday, Dec. 27, the video was an accurate representation of what took place at the board meeting.

A roughly one-mile-long section of Pelletier Avenue has been at the center of controversy for more than a year regarding its designation as a private or public road, stemming from a dispute between the town and Calvin Ouellette regarding ownership of the land over which the road crosses. Three families have year-round homes on the stretch of road.

The question of the road’s ownership remains uncertain as Ouellette and the town continue the implementation of an agreement reached this summer. Despite this, residents voted Nov. 14 to once again allow town public works crews to keep the road open this winter.

Details of the agreement with Ouellette have only recently become public, delayed due to advice from the selectmen’s attorney, Richard Currier, who advised them not to discuss the details with the public while mediation was ongoing.

Frenchville Town Managager Ryan E. Pelletier (Don Eno)

At the Dec. 21 board meeting, board chair Craig Lawrence said Frenchville residents were unaware of the likely true costs of completing the Pelletier Avenue project because of the previous need to refrain from discussing those terms. Had town officials been able to speak publicly about the town’s obligations under the agreement and the related expenses, residents would have a clearer picture of the eventual total cost, Lawrence contended.

Lawrence commented that those in favor of pushing ahead with the Pelletier Avenue project have been telling residents that doing so would not result in any increase in taxes, something he said is false.

“The town is looking at having to raise a lot of money,” Lawrence said at the December board meeting.

The agreement reached with Ouellette through mediation would transfer ownership of the road to the Town of Frenchville and allow for future paving of the road, once the town has completed work to address drainage and access issues between the road and land Ouellette owns and so long as the work preserves all of Ouellette’s tillable land.

Pelletier told selectmen he estimates it would cost upward of $200,000 to finally complete the Pelleter Avenue project, “from A to Z.”

This includes the legal fees to secure easements or deeds from abutting landowners, surveying and engineering costs, purchasing land at fair market value if the town needed to use the eminent domain process, and the cost of actually doing the on-the-ground work, including possibly moving the road over by several feet.

Although Ouellette has agreed to sell the needed land to the town for $1, once the initial stakeholders reach the terms of the settlement, there is no guarantee that other landowners would agree to a quitclaim deed or easements.

To date, according to Pelletier, not one of the 10 landowners along Pelletier Avenue has signed over a quitclaim deed to the town or agreed to an easement.

Lawrence also expressed concern that the town has opened itself up to lawsuits now that public works has begun snow removal on the road, following the Nov. 14 special town meeting vote.

Even if the town lacks clear ownership of the road, by conducting maintenance, it has opened itself up to liability, he said.

“We created the hazard by plowing the road,” said Lawrence. “We are shooting the dice,” regarding doing any work on the road, he added.

“Can the town just stop [plowing]?” selectman Andrew McQuarrie asked.

Lawrence and Pelletier said that was an option, since the town does not yet have clear ownership of the road, as they interpret the mediation agreement. However, residents voted in November to plow and maintain the road.

The town could be in legal jeopardy, selectmen said, if someone should get in an accident on a private road, which the town plows, and sue the town. However, they agreed to continue with the wishes of voters as expressed at the November meeting.

The continued maintenance of the road and its lack of clear ownership have also led to two other issues which could cost the town money, according to Pelletier.

Frenchville receives annual road maintenance funds from Maine Department of Transportation’s Local Road Assistance Program. Pelletier told selectmen that an MDOT representative would be visiting the town in the coming weeks to review how the town has spent those state funds.

“This visit to the town office from the MDOT is by the request or complaint from one of the homeowners on this section of Pelletier Avenue,” Pelletier said on Thursday.

If MDOT determines Frenchville spent state monies inappropriately, including using funds on a private road, the town could be liable to pay some funds back to the state.

Also, Pelletier told selectmen the town’s insurance provider was unlikely to cover the cost of equipment damaged while working on a road the town does not own.

On Thursday, Pelletier said the town has not yet filed such a claim with Maine Municipal Association.

“Taking care of that road is foolish,” McQuarrie said.

“It’s illegal,” replied Lawrence, though he did not indicate specific legalities.

The next Frenchville board of selectmen meeting occurs at 4:30 p.m. on Jan 4 at the town office.

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