January 21, 2020

Camden group pushes for underground utilities

CAMDEN – The group of bed-and-breakfast owners in Camden’s High Street Historic District fighting to get utility lines buried has responded point-by-point to state officials seeking to close the matter.

The state Department of Transportation has begun a long planned improvement to U.S. Route 1 north of Camden’s downtown, from the Camden Public Library to Camden Hills State Park. Work has halted for the winter, but will resume in the spring.

The High Street Historic Association has argued for burying utility lines in the historic district, a little less than a mile north of the library, where some 60 houses dating from the 19th century are located. Many have been converted to inns.

The association drafted a response to a letter by Transportation Commissioner David Cole and Earle Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

In their Nov. 12 letter, Cole and Shettleworth acknowledge that the $5.1 million U.S. Route 1-High Street highway reconstruction project will affect the historic district.

But they note that the Federal Highway Administration and Maine Historic Preservation Commission agreed that “the project would not adversely affect those characteristics of the district that made it eligible for listing in the register.”

High Street B&B owners Bob Topper, Maryanne Shanahan and Joanne Ball have argued in recent weeks that DOT is obligated by federal law to at least get firm estimates of the cost of burying cable TV, telephone and electric lines under the roadway in such an historic district.

They also cited federal law that suggests underground utilities are the preferred option in historic districts.

Cole and Shettleworth respond in their letter that federal highway authorities “ruled unequivocally on Nov. 1 that the federal requirement to [use] underground utilities in a historic district applies only to new utilities, not to those that are relocated.”

Further, Cole and Shettleworth note that state law relating to the issue “applies only in a municipally designated historic district, not a federally designated historic district such as High Street.”

In a Nov. 20 letter, Topper, Shanahan and Ball argue that according to DOT’s utility accommodation policy “replacement of more than five poles … is hereby considered new facilities and not ‘replacements or additions.'” Nearly 30 poles are being replaced, they stated.

Cole and Shettleworth wrote that DOT estimated the cost of putting utilities underground at $2.5 million. The three Camden innkeepers dismiss that “ballpark” estimate, saying it is “hardly a feasibility study.”

“When undergrounding was first requested seven years ago, we were told it was too expensive,” Topper, Shanahan and Ball wrote. “When we showed it was not too expensive, we were told that our town would have to bear the cost.

“When we found that federal funds were available for historic sites, we were told the [area] was not a historic site,” the letter continued. “When we showed that the district was a historic site, we were told that funding was available only for new utilities. Now we know that in the eyes of DOT these are new aerial facilities. Can there be another excuse?”

The innkeepers argue that it is “simply common sense to underground utilities while the roadways are opened and sidewalks are being replaced for the simple reason that it greatly minimizes cost.”

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