Lack of transparency alleged at heated Hancock meeting

HANCOCK — A Hancock Planning Board meeting turned heated July 13 when a new member alleged that the town was not providing proper meeting notice and that he and the general public do not have access to public records.

Doug Kimmel said meeting agendas should be posted publicly seven days before each meeting, but that the town of Hancock fails to do this.

Kimmel also said that he was denied documents by the town clerk, despite being on the Planning Board himself. Kimmel said that all members of the Planning Board should have access to documents to review before meetings, and that any member of the public who wishes to see town documents should be able to do so.

According to the Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), any member of the public is entitled to access any records that have “been received or prepared for use in connection with the transaction of public or governmental business or contains information relating to the transaction of public or governmental business.” That includes agendas and minutes of meetings for all town committees and boards, as well as plans, permits and applications. There are some exceptions, such as for records that are considered confidential by law.

Board members Nicholas Branca and Deb Foster, who have served for a longer time than Kimmel, took issue with Kimmel’s accusations and requests.

As Kimmel, Branca and Foster argued, Branca slammed his binder on the floor multiple times, and when Kimmel asked for documents, Branca flung a folder of documents in his direction.

An application for a mini golf center off of Route 1 in Hancock was another point of contention. The Route 1 corridor is not zoned for this type of business, and the mini golf course had been turned down already for this reason. However, the application has been revised and resubmitted.

Developer Brewster Harding’s application was turned down by the board last year on the grounds that it would violate Hancock’s Environmental Control Ordinance, which prohibits outdoor recreational activities along Route 1. A special town meeting was held in Hancock on September 15, 2021, to discuss the ordinance, and to allow the public to vote on whether the ordinance should be amended to allow commercial, outdoor recreational facilities on Route 1. Planning Board and Select Board members favored the change, but the proposed amendment failed 47-11.

The revised mini golf application splits the property into two separate lots, one having an entrance on Brook Lane instead of Route 1.

“Well, I’ve been talking to the Planning Board a little bit about some possibilities,” said Harding about his new course of action since his last application was turned down.

Harding envisions a “typical 18-hole mini golf course. There would be a place where you get your clubs and balls and so forth, there would also be an ice cream stand in one of the existing buildings.

“The parking would be in the open field there,” he said.

“As far as the golf course goes, it wouldn’t be until next year,” said Harding.

Bob Clement, 94, has lived on Brook Lane since 1955. He is not pleased with the plans to construct a mini golf course on his road.

“I’m totally against it,” Clement said. “There’s too much on Route 1 now. Where would you have a parking lot?”

He said there is not room to have a parking lot for a recreational facility on Brook Lane. He thinks that traffic on Route 1 will make the use of a parking lot in that location tricky.

“This is the busiest section, you’ve got four roads coming in here, Franklin Road, Mud Creek and Route 1 both ways,” Clement said. “I just think it’s too crowded.”

He is also aware of the rules on Route 1 regarding outdoor recreational facilities and said he does not like that this project seems to be finding ways around them.

Kimmel said the application had already been turned down once by the board because of zoning, and that allowing it to move forward as amended seemed contradictory.

This prompted more arguing between Kimmel and Branca.

“Have you ever in your life taken a loophole to circumvent the law?” Branca asked.

The dispute prompted a response from Code Enforcement Officer Don Baker.

“This board has been functioning fine for years without doing things your way,” said Baker to Kimmel.

Kimmel said that Brook Lane is a small, unpaved road that does not have room for two-way traffic.

The issue ended up being tabled as despite a lengthy and heated discussion, the applicant for the permit in question was not even present at the meeting.

When The Ellsworth American requested a copy of the mini golf application from the town office, the reporter was referred to Branca who initially said he would have to consult with the town’s attorney. Branca later called back to explain that the town was having “filing issues.”

“This is all freedom of information,” said Branca. “We’ve had some filing issues lately, it’s been that way for a while.”

He said the tone at the July 13 meeting was not reflective of how the Planning Board usually conducts business.

“Usually, it is not that confrontational. We usually try to keep it jovial,” he said. “That was not standard operating procedure.”

He said the town will post agendas going forward.

“We are not required to post agendas to the public, it’s more of a common courtesy,” he said. “Starting next month, we will begin posting the agenda at the town hall and on the town’s website.”

In other business, an application for a mineral extraction operation on Thorsen Road was tabled, as the applicant did not show up to the meeting.

An application for a new business permit was heard by the board.

The applicant seeks to open a medical marijuana distribution facility, with no recreational sales. Customers of the potential business would need to have a medical card and referral to acquire products.

The town of Hancock currently has a ban on marijuana sales, but the Planning Board is seeking clarification on the wording of the ordinance to determine if the ban is for recreational marijuana sales only, or if it includes medical marijuana as well.

Malachy Flynn

Reporter Malachy Flynn covers news on the Schoodic beat, which includes the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Sorrento, Sullivan, Trenton, Waltham, and Winter Harbor. He also reports on the town of Tremont on Mount Desert Island. He welcomes tips and suggestions about stories in the area. To contact Malachy with tips or questions, email him at [email protected].

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