Last Saturday outside Corsetti’s Market off Windham Center Road, voters gathered to sign petitions concerning local issues. Though many voters came to sign a petition put out by “Don’t Mortgage ME,” a petition to reject borrowing of money for the state budget, Windham voters were asked to sign another petition as well, a petition to reject the Windham Town Council’s vote that authorized the purchase of 23 acres for future land development.
The petition’s main contention is that it should be the voters’ decision to authorize that purchase. The land in question is centrally located next to the routes 302/202 rotary, directly abutting the Smith Cemetery off Gray Road. A council vote Tuesday, May 11 approved the use of $400,000 of previously appropriated funds to buy the land. During public comment before the council vote, Lane Hiltunen told the board that “if (the purchase) is voted in, I will start a petition to overturn the council immediately, tomorrow morning.”
And he has lived up to his word.
“I started the petition because I personally believe that it should have gone to referendum on election day,” Hiltunen said. “It’s not only the amount of money. It’s the fact we’ve got two buildings that are in need of renovations, the Public Works Garage and the Town Hall. The purchase is not a bad deal or a bad price. It’s just a question of priorities. I’d like the voter to decide.”
This sentiment, in regard to the weighing of priorities, was one echoed by Tom Bartell. Bartell was the only councilor to vote against the purchase. Before the decision was put to a vote, Bartell explained that, while the land purchase did pose an opportune chance to buy land in a central location, he believed the funds would be better spent to repair existing municipal facilities such as the Public Works Garage.
“What I’m concerned about is the opportunity we may be losing by taking advantage of this opportunity,” Bartell said at the May 11 council meeting.
Hiltunen, a retired U.S. Army veteran, has undertaken the task of collecting around 1,174 signatures to reject the vote. That is roughly 10 percent of the town’s master voter list, updated two months ago, according to Town Clerk Linda Morrell. The town charter reserves the right of petition to any resident in town. If Hiltunen is able to collect those signatures by May 31, the town would then be forced to hold a special referendum.
“If a petition is turned in and the signatures are verfied, the council has to hold a public hearing in thirty days and hold a special referendum.” Town Manager Anthony Plante said. “If the petition is certified, we would put everything on hold until all that is played out. At that point, if we are not able to negotiate an extention with the landowner, we’d lose part of the deposit on that land.”
Hiltunen said that rejecting the land purchase is not the intention of the petition.
“With this petition, I hope to get a vote to purchase that land as referendum,” Hiltenun said, “If the voters pass it, I’m all right with that. I don’t like seven people deciding how $400,000 should be spent.”
Councilor Elizabeth Wisecup, who voted for the land purchase in order to expand the Smith Cemetery, said that she understands Hiltunen’s point of view, but argues that the $400,000 has already been appropriated and therefore its use is up to the council’s discretion.
“The public has already voted on the money,” Wisecup said, “Some of it was already set aside for building and land improvements that they voted on the last few years. The money is already there that the people have approved and not for any specific purpose, but for whatever the council leadership at the time would deem necessary. It’s already been approved, just sitting waiting for such an opportunity to come up.”
Wisecup also reiterated the purchase of the 23 acres was a rare opportunity for both the town and the Smith Cemetery adjacent to the land.
“(The repairs) have been put off for awhile anyway which had nothing to do with the purchase, but you don’t get any opportunity to buy land everyday, ” Wisecup said. “You do have the opportunity to fix buildings. That can happen. You can’t just go out and find a piece of land that’s convienent and that’s next to a cemetery. The opportunity is not going to surface again realistically for that cemetery.”
As of May 17, 75 Windham residents have signed Hiltunen’s petition. The council’s plans remain unchanged, and it hasn’t decided what to do with the 23 acres. The council has spoken about the expansion of the Smith Cemetery as one possibility as well as placing a new municipal building on the lot. According to Plante, the town hopes to close on the purchase on June 21.