Common Sense in Whitefield
Whitefield voters have taken a sow's ear and they're on the way to turning it into a silk purse. We speak of the vote recently at town meeting concerning the fate of the Coopers Mills Dam. The crumbling structure serves chiefly as a way to impound water for fire fighting; unfortunately, it also serves as a barrier to native fish fighting their way upstream on the Sheepscot River to spawn.
After ten years of work, a consensus plan had emerged to remove the dam and replace it with a rock ramp that would still impound water for fire fighting, but not impede fish passage. Best of all, it was a plan that would be paid for by folks other than Whitefield taxpayers - the feds, the state, and some nonprofit organizations concerned with Atlantic Salmon survival in the Sheepscot.
But the whole thing got bollixed up when, in an ill-considered decision, two of the town's three selectmen put an article on the warrant to sell the dam instead of accept the deal. Town voters were understandably confused about what to do, and the deal was put in jeopardy.
But by town meeting time voters had figured things out, and a majority of them voted to reject selling the dam. That rejection paves the way for accepting the plan to remove the dam and replace it.
We encourage the newly constituted Whitefield Board of Selectman to consult with the town's attorney and put an appropriate item to a town vote, one that will turn this long saga into a story with a nice ending: Town gets money, town removes dam, town watches fish go past the old dam site. And maybe, months or even years later, town watches Atlantic salmon try to make their way back downstream.
Lewiston Sun Journal
Western Maine's Wild Blue Yonder
The prospect of fighter jets zipping across western Maine skies at skyscraper height must make a hushed bank of mountaintop windmills sound pretty good, in comparison. A longtime training area for pilots, northern Oxford, Franklin, and Somerset counties are under scrutiny by the Air National Guard, whose pilots want to expand their training ability by dropping the ceiling from 2,800 to 500 feet and abandoning rigid flight paths.
The jets, F-16s from Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts, would then fly only to avoid population centers and bald eagle nests. The former is probably much easier to accomplish than the latter, given the jets' average cruising speed of four hundred mph.
To some, the screech of F-16s is the sound of freedom, a mild wartime inconvenience. To others, it's the squeal of unwelcome fingernails across the region's economic blackboard, and a threat to fragile ecosystems, tourist trade, and quality of life.
Each opinion is valid. Pilots at Otis say they need training unavailable with established practices, given the omnipresent possibility of Iraq deployment. Residents, especially private pilots, are justifiably concerned with the safety issues raised by lower flight ceilings.
Jets promise to be much more noticeably intrusive than windmills, which would have faded into the scenery of Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain if their construction had been allowed. Decibally speaking, there's few similarities between a screaming military jet and a spinning wind turbine.
Except, apparently, equal ability to inspire loud talking. Review of the flight ceilings has potential to devolve into vociferous rhetoric and accusation, just like Redington and Black Nubble, and make what is likely a minor issue - the rules for infrequent military flights - into a major controversy. It happened in the 1990s, when a proposal to lower ceilings to a treetop of three hundred feet was shot down. This upcoming debate, however, needs balanced debate, as arguments by proponents - wartime preparation and technology advancements - and opponents - concerns about life and safety - are equally sound.
But so were arguments for windmills and energy diversification, which, we've seen, can suffocate under an avalanche of doomsday predictions. Finding compromise for the low-level flights could be easy, perhaps as simple as instituting a sunset provision triggered by the conclusion of the Iraq war or something similar. Something should be reachable.
As long as acrimony is kept to a minimum.
Brunswick Times Record
Deeper pool, cheaper pool
In an October 2002 editorial board meeting with the Times Record, then-gubernatorial candidate John Baldacci explained that a key element of his plan to implement Dirigo Health would be to include state workers' insurance coverage in the universal health care program. Candidate Baldacci posited that doing so would create a broad, diversified pool of Dirigo members to hold down the cost of state-funded health insurance in Maine by achieving economies of scale that mirror private market models. The state's robust work force would serve as a market counterweight to demands placed on the Dirigo system by Medicaid recipients and other low-income households that historically require more extensive - and expensive - health care.
Soon after candidate Baldacci became Governor Baldacci in 2003, the plan to add workers and retirees covered by the state government's health insurance plan to the Dirigo Health pool evaporated. With the exception of proposed legislation that died in a legislative committee earlier this year, the idea has not resurfaced in any of the manifold discussions about health-care reform that have echoed through the State House halls during the last four years.
During those same four years, finding a way to establish a sustained funding mechanism for Dirigo Health has been a lingering sore spot for the Baldacci administration and the legislature. Dirigo Health enrollment numbers and cost-savings projections have consistently fallen short of the state's goals, and one-time supporters now openly question the viability of the program.
It's time for Governor Baldacci to dust off the wisdom and courage displayed by candidate Baldacci, circa 2002.
The governor should transfer health insurance coverage for all non-union state employees to Dirigo Health, effective with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 or as soon thereafter as contracts allow. Similarly, he should endorse and lobby hard for LD 1568, Representative Elizabeth Miller's resolve to make the legislature an employee group covered by Dirigo Health. The Baldacci administration also should inform state union negotiators that enrollment in Dirigo Health will be a requirement for all future collective bargaining agreements.
As important as whatever financial benefits that would be realized by expanding the Dirigo Health member pool to include people for whom the state already pays insurance premiums, the move would demonstrate that the governor takes seriously two concepts that have rarely surfaced in State House dialogue during the first four months of his second term - equity and credibility.
At the very least, lawmakers and top-level state officials should participate in the same insurance program that they have deemed adequate to meet the needs of otherwise uninsured Mainers. Enrolling in Dirigo Health also would demonstrate clearly that lawmakers have faith in the program they've put forth as the centerpiece for meaningful health-care reform.
Portland Press Herald
A Warning Sign from Southern Maine
All it takes to see why York County is Maine's fastest-growing county is to look at a regional map. Calculate the driving time to Boston and compute the nearest location with a substantial amount of developable land. Maine's southernmost tip almost glows with the potential that people south of the Piscataqua River can discern with a casual glance.
In fact, by one measure, a full third of Maine's population growth since 2000 has put down roots in York County. With nearly twenty thousand more residents than it had in 1999, the county's 10.6 percent growth rate is triple the statewide average of 3.7 percent.
While such growth has its clear benefits in tax receipts and valuation increases, it also impacts local schools, highway networks, and water and waste disposal systems in ways that aren't easy to absorb. The impact is particularly sharp in the county's smaller towns, where a large amount of open land offers newcomers opportunity for development.
The fastest-growing town in the fastest-growing county is tiny Newfield, where the 472 new residents who have arrived since 2000 resulted in a 35.5 percent growth rate. Other towns picking up residents at double-digit rates include Limerick, 26.8 percent; Waterboro, 23.6 percent; Acton, 22.6 percent; and Ogunquit, 19.9 percent. Only the last has any ocean frontage. For the rest, and other fast-growing towns such as Berwick, Hollis, and Shapleigh, the lure is land.
That trend isn't happening in York County alone. As the Brookings Institution report on Maine's economy noted in 2006, the state's historic image as a rural haven has given way to suburban-style development along I-95 from Kittery to north of Bangor.
That inevitably comes in conflict with what Brookings identified as the state's principal attraction: "As the search for quality places grows in importance," the report said, "Maine possesses a globally known 'brand' built on images of livable communities, stunning scenery, and great recreational opportunities."
While individual communities try to deal with this trend with stopgap measures such as growth caps and ever-larger minimum lot sizes, those efforts inevitably will fall short and leave other communities vulnerable to the effects of unplanned growth.
The figures out of York County verify this Brookings conclusion: "The combination of Maine's intensely local planning system and the absence of sufficient support and incentives for municipal and regional planning efforts has left most Maine towns and regions susceptible to sprawl that further weakens town centers and degrades rural landscapes."
In other words, York County - and all of Maine - needs serious help from the state to handle what's going on before it overwhelms the "globally known brand" that brings so many here.
Waldo Independent, Belfast
Disappointing Tarnish on a New Bridge
The recent news that the Maine Department of Transportation is considering having to reconstruct the intersection of Routes 1 and 174 in Prospect, at the approach to the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge, is disappointing to say the least. With such an impressive and award-winning bridge in place, how could it be that more consideration was not given to the traffic safety problems that are now so apparent?
Carol Morris, the MDOT's contracted spokesperson, told us that is a fair question to ask. She said the state made the curved approach of the road go as far back into the abutting rock cliff as it could without getting into additional right-of-way issues or having to take more land.
That is understandable, to a certain extent. The taking of the Sail Inn property by eminent domain had ruffled plenty of feathers already, and the MDOT probably wasn't interested in getting into similar situations with other property owners.
But let's think about what the explanation from Morris really means. If the intersection does need to be rebuilt - which Morris admitted is a possibility - that means the very land the state sought to avoid taking in the first place might still have to be taken nonetheless. And let's not forget who would be footing the bill for this fix-up - the taxpayers of the State of Maine. Except this time, instead of just paying for the land taking and any legal battles that might arise from it, we will have to additionally pay for both the deconstruction of the current intersection and the building of the new one.
Morris told us she did not have any estimates for what the reconstruction might cost. Fair enough - this is still, at this point, a hypothetical project. But anyone who has been to a town meeting lately where the budget for road repair has been discussed knows the costs of paving have increased astronomically in recent years. That fact, combined with the other costs of labor, blasting, rock removal, and more, means the answer to the "What might it cost?" question is simple: it would be expensive.
That's the financial part. Then there is the practical impact for anyone who travels to Bucksport, Ellsworth, or points beyond on a regular basis. You will have to sit and wait while rock is blasted out, pavement is taken up, dirt is moved around, and new pavement is put down. The first time around, such delays were both unavoidable and understandable. If it happens a second time, we won't be able to say the same.
A set of traffic lights has been installed at the intersection to try and alleviate the safety concerns, but Morris said the lights are temporary. She said that is because the MDOT wants to avoid congestion on Route 1, which is another point where we are in agreement with Morris. Then she said that if the MDOT decides the intersection does need to be rebuilt, the work will not take place until the old Waldo Hancock Bridge is torn down. She said that would save on overall costs to do both projects at once, but no one knows when there will be enough funding available to take the old bridge down.
In the meantime, though, we will have to travel through an intersection that the Waldo County Sheriff's Department has described as hazardous. That was before the traffic lights went in, and though they should help slow traffic down and make the intersection safer, they won't correct the underlying issue of visibility. And the safety they bring will come with the cost of traffic congestion.
What makes this whole situation even more unfortunate is that the bridge itself is such an impressive structure, one that we are sure will attract thousands of visitors each year. The bridge has already won awards for its design and construction, and it is in the running for others. The men and women who designed and built the bridge deserve credit for their hard work. It is unfortunate that this safety hazard at the intersection has put something of a black eye on the whole thing.
Portland Press Herald
Much Ado About a Statue
The biggest problem with public art is that it's public. Thus, it can become a focus for concerns that may have very little to do with its quality or its intended purpose. Such has been the lamentable fate of three prosaic sculptures of a family of baseball fans that was recently unveiled at Hadlock Field, the home of the Portland Sea Dogs.
The grouping, which portrays a father holding tickets, a boy with a ball and glove, and a mother carrying a baby girl, was commissioned by Sea Dogs owner Daniel Burke. His lawyer, William Troubh, represented Burke in his effort last year to have the city, which owns Hadlock, accept the statues as public art.
But the grouping proved controversial, with some people saying that it didn't represent the city's diverse population (its subjects appear to be Caucasian). Others called it too commercial (the boy has a Sea Dogs symbol on his shirt) or said it was too large for its site (the figure of the father, the grouping's largest, is nine feet tall).
Citing those concerns, the city's Public Art Committee voted 6-1 to reject the statues, but the City Council reversed the ruling unanimously. Councilors likely understood that both Burke and the artist, Rhoda Sherbell of New York, probably intended neither offense nor commercial exploitation, but only a celebration of a quintessential family sport.
The Sea Dogs, who won the Eastern League Championship last year for the first time in the team's history, have been popular wearing both Florida's teal and black and Boston's red, white, and blue. It's clear Burke has good reason to be thankful.