CASTINE — After nearly two hours of discussion, precipitated by more than 30 minutes of exposition by town officials, voters agreed 80-59 at a special town meeting Tuesday night to spend $400,000 to buy land on Battle Avenue near Witherle Woods.
Attorney Robin Mass served as moderator.
The land will most likely be used as a new home for the Castine Fire Rescue Station — depending on the results of an environmental assessment. If not, the town will sell the parcel, according to a copy of the warrant.
Residents expressed concern about the speed with which the town was moving toward the land purchase and the fact that the parcel was on the market a year ago for much less — $250,000.
“It’s just too much of a rush with way too many unknowns,” said resident Sheila Corbett. “It’s just incredibly rushed.”
The selectmen signed the special town meeting warrant on Aug. 2. The meeting was held eight days later, on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
Castine Town Manager Shawn Blodgett said the landowners are interested in purchasing another property in town and want the closing to be done by Sept. 15.
“We are looking to preserve options for the future,” Blodgett said.
Residents are also concerned that the land is being purchased without an environmental assessment having been done.
“I just think we’re being asked to make decisions on a lot of loose ends,” said Gunilla Kettis.
“I think it sets a poor precedent to speculate with town money,” said Gil Tenney.
There is concern about potential cancer risks and that the Fire Department could be located so close to preserved land.
Resident Josh Adam remembered the late Deborah Pulliam, who died of cancer in her 50s, and cited potentially cancer-causing chemicals called PFAS in firefighting foam.
Assistant Fire Chief Tom Gutow said the Fire Department does not use foam containing PFAS [polyfluoroalkyl].
Referring to the Battle Avenue parcel, Blodgett told the crowd: “The missed opportunity costs are astronomical because this opportunity will probably not come around again.”
As shown by the vote, not everyone opposed the purchase.
“If we can purchase it, we can sell it,” said one woman. “We have a fire department that’s doing without. Maybe it’s a blessing, moving quickly.”
Before residents were allowed to speak, Gutow spent time outlining myriad issues with the existing 62-year-old fire station and with the state of fire protection in Castine.
The department has two dozen members. Half of those are Maine Maritime Academy students who are in town half the year.
While grateful for the MMA students, the town forecasts the need for more help.
“If not for the students at MMA, there would not be a fire department in Castine,” Gutow said. But, members are “aging out” and dying.
The Fire Department building itself is “inadequate, outdated and simply not enough space,” said Gutow. The building does not meet National Fire Protection Association standards or Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. There is no room for firefighters to shower after calls or stow their gear.
A new public safety building, while providing adequate space for the town’s existing firefighting engines and equipment, also would allow for sleeping quarters. This would provide Castine the possibility of having live-in firefighter students.
Firefighter Lisa Burton explained that these would not be MMA students but rather Southern Maine Community College students in the fire services program.
The town of Castine hired Port City Architecture in August 2020 to do a feasibility study for the Fire Department.
Among the report’s numerous findings are that the existing station and site are inadequate for Castine’s future needs. A station of 11,700 square feet is needed to comply with modern firefighting procedures and provide a safe environment for firefighters.
Resident Gil Tenney asked Blodgett if he had talked to MMA about using any of the academy’s vacant land.
“There’s vacant land behind the president’s house but there’s no access,” said Blodgett.
MMA President Bill Brennan attended the meeting. Moderator Mass asked Brennan if he would like to comment. Brennan said he would not.
Former Selectman Gus Basile suggested the town create a second station on transfer station land.
Another resident asked about town finances if the land was purchased.
Finance Office Karen Motycka said Castine has $3 million in reserves, so $2.6 million would be left if the property is purchased.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 11 to correct the spelling of the last name of Gunilla Kettis.