New businesses open

BETHEL — In December, after much anticipation, the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum officially opened to the public. Home to more than 3,000 minerals and exhibits, the MMGM drew a crowd

Facilities Director and Collections Manager Fred Bailey (far left) watches as MMGM Founder Mary McFadden, Director Barbara Barrett and Founder Larry Stifler cut the ribbon at last Thursday’s grand opening.

north of 500 people in its debut weekend. Making up more than a third of the people were school-aged children, with the first 200 kids receiving a piece of Odessa meteorite along with an authenticity certificate.

Highlighting the museum’s extensive collection are the five largest pieces of the moon found on earth and the largest known Vesta asteroid discovered on earth. The display earned the MMGM coverage in the New York Times and Boston Globe newspapers, a short feature on Fox News and many highlights on local television stations in Maine.

Bowling alley

In early November, another business opened its doors in the small mountain village. River Lanes offers 10 lanes of 10-pin bowling, pool, darts, corn hole and an arcade. Like the MMGM, the entertainment center saw great success in its first weekend, selling out of many items on the menu. Owner of River Lanes Adrienne Goodwin simply described the atmosphere of the first weekend  as “crazy.”

Propane site

BETHEL — In 2018 Everett Propane purchased more than four acres of property on Walkers Mills Road in Bethel, with plans to construct a propane facility. The facility would contain two 30,000 gallon tanks and a 1,000 gallon propane pump station for filling and re-filling 20-pound tanks. The proposed facility, sandwiched on Route 26 between the Animal Hospital and Bennett Automotive, drew quick backlash from neighboring residents in Forest Drive Subdivision. Noise, risk of explosion, visual impact and traffic were a few of the many concerns Forest Drive residents expressed.

In June of this year, despite heavy opposition from residents, Planning Board members voted in favor (3-2) of the proposed site. However, the process did not end there. In July, an appeal was filed by Mike and Ewa Zeoli, abutters to the site and residents of the subdivision. At an August Appeals Board meeting, the Zeoli’s attorney, Chris Wright, touched on a number of problems he had with the planning boards decision. The two main issues were related to board members Dwayne Bennett and Cheryl Thurston, who Wright claimed both had conflict of interests. Wright said Bennett’s conflict of interest stemmed from him being an abutter to the property. Bennett participated in a few meetings regarding the proposed facility before recusing himself from a June meeting. Thurston, who helped the Everett’s with the transaction of the property 2018, also had a conflict of interest because of that, according to Wright. Thurston did not see how it “had any bearing” on the decision. She also said the Everetts never revealed to her their intentions with property. The board unanimously agreed that Thurston did not have a conflict of interest. She voted in favor of the proposed facility in June.

In September the Appeals Board voted 3-1 to affirm the Planning Board’s approval of the proposed site.

Bus garage

A proposed $2.4 million bus garage was defeated handily by voters in November, 805-286. All four towns overwhelmingly voted against the proposal. Those opposed cited the steep cost of the project and decreasing enrollment in School Administrative District 44 as reasons the project was not viable.

The main argument for constructing a new facility was the condition of the current bus garage. A report earlier in the year by a structural engineer revealed that the building had failing masonry and that the roof was in need of repairs. The 7,350 square foot garage was built in the 1920s.

The rejected facility would have been built next to the Telstar Regional High School complex on Route 26. It would have had two bus bays that measured 9,500 square feet. It was one of three options the board had regarding the garage. The other two were to build a larger garage at the same site, which would have cost an estimated more than 400,000 than the smaller one approved by directors. Lastly, renovating the former Chadbourne Tree Farms garage. The cost was estimated at about $2.4 million also, and would’ve provided two bays and 9,200 square feet of renovated space. Code violations and the building not being in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act were two reasons the board was hesitant to move forward with the garage.

The SAD 44 School Board vote in August to hold the referendum was close, 8-6.

Marijuana all around 

All nine ordinances (five on adult use marijuana and four on medical marijuana) were overwhelmingly approved in a June vote by Bethel residents.

The ordinances were met with some opposition, with multiple residents saying that if the town approved them, they would be condoning an activity still illegal at the federal level.

In November, Newry voters passed two marijuana ordinances, medical and adult-use, passed 87-34 and 84-36 respectively.

Few residents had attended the public hearing held prior to the vote.

Also earlier in the year in Newry, Jar Cannabis Co. opened its doors top the public. The retail medical marijuana store offers a wide range of medicine that comes in the form of flower, edibles, concentrates and CBD products. CBD products include; capsules, lip balms, lotions, salves and tinctures.

In Greenwood at their annual town meeting in May, the majority of residents voted to authorize, within the municipality, the operation of medical marijuana establishments. The town’s marijuana committee recently received a draft of the ordinance from its attorney and plan to review the material soon.

 

Plastic bag ban

In December a plastic bag ban ordinance, passed by Bethel voters 287-124 in June, went into effect.

The ordinance bans single use plastic bags and the use of polystyrene foam containers by town businesses. Violations of the ordinance will result in a $75 fine. For a second offense, the fine will double.

In the original ordinance proposal there was also going to be a minimum fee of five cents for a single-use paper carryout bag. The fee was dropped after feedback from local businesses. Businesses such as Walgreen, Family Dollar and the Bethel Foodliner said they would switch to paper bags.

The proposed ordinance was first brought to the town last year by Bethel resident Sarah Southam and Mason resident Madeline Williams.

Plastic bags and polystyrene foam are non-biodegradable, meaning they only break into pieces of micro plastics, which fish and wildlife can often mistake as food. Certain wildlife can also become stuck in the pieces of plastic, which can lead to injury or death.

Single use plastic bags and foam are not recyclable in Bethel’s current waste management system, which means they are added to the solid waste stream, can contaminate Bethel’s recycling stream, and are a significant cost to the town, according to officials.

The Bethel ordinance, according to the wording,  is a “commitment to eliminate single use plastic bags and foam food and beverage containers.” The  purpose is to “reduce the impact of plastics on our environment, reduce litter on our roadsides, and reduce taxpayer expense to manage solid waste.”

Reaction to the ban has been mixed.  Some opponents objected to government imposition of the requirement, while others expressed concern about a possible negative effect, particularly on older customers, who might not be able to afford reusable bags or pay for paper ones, if there was a charge. There were also some who said they like the plastic bags because they can reuse them for other purposes, and would now have to purchase them for those uses.

Earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature passed a statewide ban on single use plastic shopping bags. The new law will go into effect on April 22, 2020 (Earth Day).

 

Sewer rate hike

In November Bethel selectmen approved controversial increases in quarterly rates for customers of the Waste Water Treatment Plant, to take effect Jan. 1.

Through 2019 a minimum quarterly charge of $159 was assessed based on a minimum volume of 1,500 cubic feet of water, regardless of actual metered water usage below that volume. A .106 rate per cubic foot of metered water usage was assessed for usage over 1,500 cubic feet.

With the increase approved last month, the minimum charge will not exceed $190. A rate of .16 will be charged above 1,500.

Rates had remained the same for three years, but the WWTP is now facing a revenue shortfall that will require the increase in order to fund the system, according to town officials. The plant needs $708,693 in revenue receipts for 2020, town officials said. Total revenues receipts for 2019 were $534,453.

In public discussion leading up to the selectmen’s decision, some businesspeople said that with the increase in both the base fee and overage of fee charges, those using a lot of water are getting what translates to a 52 percent rate increase, while most single-family homes using the minimum are getting a 19 percent increase.  They said that puts an unfair burden on larger businesses, as well as Gould Academy, which uses a lot of water in dormitories.

Other users said they thought it was fair for those who use more water to pay more.

Selectboard Chairman Peter Southam said that in considering the fee increases, the board had learned that many single-family home users use less than 500 cubic feet of water per quarter, and therefore they pay more proportionally through the base fee.  “We tried to find some average in the usage pool,” he said.

Southam also noted that with the population density of Bethel Village, the WWTP “allows us to have the village here.”

The board has also discussed for the future proposing to share the costs of capital improvement sewer projects among all town taxpayers, not just users.  Such improvements must by ordinance be approved by a vote of the entire town.

Another issue the town is dealing with is the definition of a dwelling unit, as officials have sought in recent years to charge all multi-unit apartment buildings separately by unit rather than as one building. Currently some are charged as one while others are charged by the individual unit. In December selectmen were discussing options on how to approach the issue.

Newry bows out

In March Newry residents voted 50-17 in favor of terminating the town’s school withdrawal process, bringing a five-year marathon process to completion, at least for now.

A new SAD 44 cost-sharing formula, which passed in a district-wide November 2018 vote, went into effect July 1 of this year. It was contingent on the result of the Newry vote.

Assessments to SAD 44 had previously based 100 percent on valuation, leaving Newry with the highest share at around $3 million of the approximately $8.4 million total. The impact of changes to the formula will be phased in over a 9-year period, with the final version remaining in place thereafter.

“I think it’s a good compromise to a difficult situation,” Newry Selectman Jim Largess said after the vote.

“I think we got the best we could do under the circumstances,” said Jim Sysko. He served as chairman of the Newry Withdrawal Committee for four-and-a-half years. He said he thought the one of the main issues was the quality of education in SAD 44 and that the problem should have got more attention.

District officials said a Newry withdrawal would have had a major impact on SAD 44.

The final version of the new formula will set tax assessments to Newry and the other towns based on 85 percent valuation and 15 percent pupil count.

If Newry residents were to consider starting another withdrawal process, the law requires a waiting period of two years.  However, they would likely still be faced with an obstacle in the state law that left the last effort with a handicap.  The school district would technically not be required to complete a full process of negotiating a withdrawal agreement with Newry.

 

Community Forest land

After five years of work, the land for a 978-acre community forest was acquired, two miles from Bethel Village.

Mahoosuc Pathways partnered with the Trust for Public Land and Northern Forest Center. MPW had already been involved with the Trust for Public Land and Northern Forest Center through MaineWest, a partnership of regional/local organizations.

The establishment and ongoing development of the forest is anticipated to have a positive impact on Bethel’s recreation and economic development.

The goal is to have multi-use trails on the land for year-round use. The trails can be used for hiking, walking, cross country skiing, mountain biking, fat tire biking and other outdoor activities. A snowmobile trail also passes through the forest and will remain open for use in the winter. Snowmobiles will be the only motorized vehicles allowed on the trails.

The property, located on the Locke Mountain Road, boasts 13 miles of existing logging roads, beautiful views from many locations, a 51 acre mapped deer wintering area, abundant wildlife habitat areas, local snowmobile trail #13, numerous species of trees and berries, and trails in progress for hiking and mountain biking.

Gabe Perkins, executive director of Mahoosuc Pathways, recently provided the following update on the project:

“Immediately after we closed on the acquisition of the Bethel Community Forest we started to create improvements to the property for public access. We’ve rehabilitated significant sections of the Locke Mountain Road with the help of Savage Excavation and volunteers. Ron and the team donated materials and time to help us with the road and to build a fantastic new parking lot/trailhead area that overlooks the village of Bethel. This lot will serve as our three-season parking area. On August 9 we opened the forest with a celebration where Senator Susan Collins and staff from Congressman Golden’s office were on hand to dedicate the property with over 100 other friends, family, and supporters.  We plan on having an annual Community Forest Day and are working on a date for 2020.

“For recreation infrastructure upgrades we utilized our existing road network to guide visitors on a hiking trail that leaves from the three-season lot and gains the summit ridge. Along the ridge we cleared and roughed with staff and volunteer help a ½ mile of the hiking trail along the ridge and improved three views. We also reconnected through the community forest to an old trail we had made years ago for mountain biking on the neighboring Bethel Water District property. In September, our inaugural collaborative event The Mahoosuc Ridge to the River Challenge saw 200 runners wind their way through the Community Forest en route to the finish at Sunday River.

“In addition to the three-season lot and trail improvements we also improved what will be our winter parking lot. With volunteer help, the lot (located on the North Road just past the concrete plant) is set and we’ll look to open that soon. From there we have flagged a snowshoe trail that connects with our already existing hiking trail. We also worked with DA Wilson to improve the first 1200’ of the Daisy Bryant Road by widening, ditching, crowning, and improving the sightlines along that section making it easier for two-way traffic.

“The Greenstock Snowmobile Club volunteers rebuilt a bridge high up in the valley of the BCF so they can have safe passage this winter connecting the trails in Bethel to the trails in Newry and beyond. This bridge is dual purpose and will be used for summer biking and walking as well as snowmobiling. We also worked with the Center for Community GIS on a recreation map of the property that’s available on our website and at the parking areas.

“Our volunteer management team meets the second Thursday of each month at the Bethel Airport and our meetings are open to the public. Over the winter the management team and board of Mahoosuc Pathways will be identifying priorities from our management plan for recreation and habitat that we want to implement in the next year. It’s expected that we’ll build mountain bike trails, add to the hiking trail, set to work improving the forest for commercial logging down the road, and rehabilitate some critical wildlife habitat features on the property.”

The project is the largest conservation project in the history of Bethel.

www.mahoosucpathways.org/Community-Forest/.

 

Veterans Park

2019 saw the Bethel Veterans Park, eight years in the making, brought almost to completion.

The park is located on town-owned land at the intersection of Mechanic and Main streets.

Tablets with the engraved names of Bethel-area military veterans were erected, a fence was completed, benches were placed and flag poles were added.

“Next spring the last tablet on a wall will be engraved on site and gates to the fence will be installed,” Veterans Park Committee member Jane Ryerson said recently. “Also next spring or early summer, we will be placing the pavers and planting trees between the flagpoles and the boundary line in the back.”

Pavers are also available for honoring individual veterans; forms are available at the Bethel town office.

The plan calls for the project to be completed in the summer of 2020, with a dedication toward the end of summer.

The Bethel Veterans Park is nearing completion. Bethel Citizen photo by Alison Aloisio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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