Boards, committees, services atrophy as volunteerism fades

SOMESVILLE, Nov. 21, 2020 – This week, we heard the lament over inadequate ambulance staffing on the Quietside, the need to recruit a new harbormaster and deputy for Southwest Harbor, the continuing talk of police consolidation spurred on by the challenges of recruiting officers for small towns and the chronic vacancies on town boards and committees.

Two years ago, the Town of Tremont unceremoniously booted the planning board chairman from his perch after he went AWOL. That only exacerbated the problem of finding competent people who would serve on these boards. The town in July reduced the number of planning members to five and the terms to three years from five.

This year Mount Desert filled its vacant spot on the board of selectmen by wooing elementary school teacher Geoff Wood, photo left, to be a write-in candidate. He got 28 votes. He’s is now a selectman.

“I’ve always had an interest in politics, law and policy. And civic duty runs in my family. I plan to live out the rest of my days in this town, so I figured it was time I stepped up and did something for it,” Wood said in an interview with the Islander. “I do have some concerns about the direction that the island communities seem to be going in with regard to commercialism, away from community … I’m very interested in affordable housing, sustainable energy and policies that are not necessarily focused exclusively on the dollar.” 

But spirited citizens like Wood are harder to find.

“It doesn’t get easier,” said Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt. “We have fewer year-round residents who want to serve and they are getting older.” Lunt said he only has one committee, the harbor committee, which he doesn’t have a problem filling.

“Citizen engagement” was one of the top five issues which kept local officials awake at night, according to a survey conducted by software provider Diligent Corporation.

Mount Desert’s Zoning Board of Appeals is such a case study. The ZBA is an important small town institution – to ensure a town’s growth is in keeping with its heritage and history and to check the planning board. Keeping a ZBA thriving is in the public interest, not to mention saving taxpayers enormous legal fees.

Unfortunately, the Mount Desert ZBA has not been able to meet since the summer. It has had a vacancy the selectmen have not been able to fill. The ZBA now only has six active members. It canceled two meetings since late summer because it could not muster the necessary quorum of four members, according to board chair William Ferm. The meeting before that also was canceled because a power outage thwarted meeting by Zoom.

An application to re-build a house in Northeast Harbor approved by the planning board in June has been in front of the ZBA since then with no movement. The approval is being challenged by a neighbor.

Similar to Tremont, the Mount Desert ZBA chair is asking for relief from the current ordinance that requires seven members. In an interview, William Ferm said several times he was willing to work with the town’s land-use zoning ordinance (LUZO) advisory committee to fashion a way forward amenable to all.

Ferm said the selectmen should immediately fill the seventh seat, and, if not, consider changing the quorum from four to three if there are only six members. He also floated the idea of adding two alternates. At a meeting of the LUZO committee Tuesday, members questioned how they could find alternates when the ZBA can’t even fill the seventh seat.

Meanwhile the Lapsley family of Northeast Harbor who had hoped to complete construction of a family compound last summer must wait. Their application is now scheduled for review on Nov. 24 but it’s anyone’s guess whether that will actually happen because two ZBA members already have recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest. That leaves only four members.

“We are close to the bone,” Ferm said. “We’re at critical mass at this stage.”

The status quo is not a neutral stance. In this case the appellants, William and Marjorie Grace, would like nothing better than for construction not to start. In a phone interview, their lawyer seemed perfectly content with the chronic delays.

Perhaps it’s time to activate the seasonal residents. The virtual attendance of board and committee members during the pandemic worked flawlessly. Is there a hybrid model to allow snowbirds to sit on boards and committees like that which worked so well with year-round residents? It’s also not a bad idea to get seasonal residents more interested in the workings of their town for which they pay copious taxes.

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