HOULTON — It took three votes and more than an hour of discussion by the Town Council on Monday night, but on March 7, local residents will get to vote on the town’s position with regard to a landfill being proposed by the regional waste district board.
“I think the people deserve the opportunity to vote this up or down,” council Chairman Paul Romanelli said.
Debate on the issue was expected to bring out a crowd, so the meeting was moved to the recreation department building, where more than 100 chairs were set up and a town police officer was on hand, just in case things got out of control. Fewer than 20 people turned out.
Those who did attend were against the project for safety, aesthetic and financial reasons.
“I am willing to pay whatever it takes to keep my land and water pollution free,” said David Brown, president of the Houlton Fish and Game Club, one of several people who spoke in opposition to the project.
The discussion was prompted by a request from the Southern Aroostook Solid Waste Disposal District that its member towns take a formal position on the district’s ongoing efforts to build a secure landfill on 135 acres it owns in Hammond, using private funds.
In 1994, district voters rejected a proposal to fund the project at the local level. Last year, the SASWDD board sought private funding and has been working with EIRCO Environmental Inc. of New Hampshire since then.
The original project would have involved just over 8 acres. In order to make the project financially profitable, EIRCO would like to develop as much as 40 acres and take waste from outside the district.
Because of mixed views by SASWDD board members, EIRCO has asked that the district clarify its position on the project, before the company invests thousands of dollars.
Brian Stewart, the district representative from Houlton, has been unwilling to support the project without a districtwide vote. By consensus previously, and by its action Monday, the Houlton Council is standing behind Stewart.
The sticking point has been that a letter drafted by the district’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton of Bangor, includes a proposed referendum question that not only calls for support of the project, but also asks the towns to consider pulling out of the district, if they don’t.
The letter had been intended for just Houlton, but SASWDD directors decided to send it to all seven towns.
Stewart was unable to attend Monday’s meeting because of another obligation. In a letter read into the record, he asked that the council support a districtwide referendum on the landfill project, but not take any action that would jeopardize the town’s position as a member of the district.
If that could not be done Monday, he asked that the issue be tabled until the council’s Jan. 10 meeting, to allow him time to meet in a workshop with the councilors.
A motion to table action on the order for a referendum election failed after Romanelli declined to break a 3-3 tie vote.
The town’s charter allows the chairman to vote only in the affirmative to break a tie. If the chairman declines to vote, the motion dies.
David Wittner, executive director of the waste district, tried three times to explain that the district did not have the legal authority to call a districtwide referendum, unless it involved raising and spending local tax dollars.
“I don’t care if you vote for a districtwide referendum or not,” Wittner told the council. “It isn’t going to happen.”
He also said that the Department of Environmental Protection has given the district just 18 months from last October to get its site tests done in Hammond.
“I think it’s time to get off the pot,” he said, adding that after six years of review, the landfill was found to be the only viable option for the district to pursue.
“Either you’re behind the district at this point, or get out,” he said.
Councilors wanted no part of getting out, however.
Since the early 1990s, the district has spent $1.7 million on the project. To withdraw would mean the town would give up its interest in the land the district owns.
Romanelli offered an amendment that would have deleted the reference to withdrawal from the district in the suggested referendum question and add language calling for a districtwide vote. The motion died for lack of a second.
A subsequent motion he made to only delete the withdrawal wording, but still allow an election to be held at the local level, was approved, but only after he voted in the affirmative to break a tie.