Columbia Falls to vote on land-use plan prompted by park proposal

Select Board also will seek grants to possibly purchase land and construct a new town office facility. 
A white sign with a red arrow with "vote here" printed on the sign.
Photo by Erik Hersman/Flickr.
This story was originally published by the Quoddy Tides.

Residents of Columbia Falls will vote at their March 19 town meeting on accepting a new land use plan along with a code of ordinances that were developed in response to the Worcester family’s Flagpole of Freedom Park that was proposed two years ago and has now been dropped.

Since the $1 billion for-profit patriotic themed park honoring veterans was initially unveiled in March 2022, the town has spent two years doing its due diligence with respect to planning for any largescale commercial building projects.

While the town appropriated $120,000 for its legal account last year to conduct a deep dive into land-use planning and large-scale building development, it has spent $103,000 so far on those efforts, with the town having been reimbursed $28,291 by the Worcester family in September 2023 for conducting its due diligence on the flagpole project, with a promise to cover further costs.

However, a formal agreement between the town and the Worcesters was never signed and no further reimbursement payments were made.

The $120,000 that was appropriated has also been used for other legal issues and for the town’s land use planning, with nearly $26,000 still remaining in the account.

Town plans for its future

In August 2022 the Worcester family requested the town pause for eight weeks on its review of annexing unorganized territory land for the flagpole project.

There was no change in that pause request until the Worcester family announced its intent to end their pursuit of the project in February of this year.

Attorney Tim Pease, speaking on behalf of the Worcester family, said the primary reason for the decision to abandon the project was based on community input.

“Really it’s a result of listening to the community, wanting to be good neighbors and really paying attention to what folks are saying,” said Pease. 

From March 2022 until the present time, a myriad of meetings, workshops, surveys and town suppers have been held by all involved — select board, planning board and residents — for the future betterment of the town, says Columbia Falls Select Board Chair Tony Santiago.

As the town’s current attorney Aga Dixon pointed out back in October 2022: “This town is not well positioned and is currently in total reactive mode. Setting aside the flagpole project, this town could have a landowner or business propose some fairly large-scale development, and the town would have very little ability to consider its impact on the community. It’s a risk that the town is taking on with every day that it doesn’t have a robust regulatory framework in place.”

Santiago acknowledges that the work they have done to date and what will now be voted on places the town on firm ground with regards to future development.

“It has been a long road to get here, but I believe the work we have done over the last two years has been done right and with the best interest of the town and the residents that call it home in mind,” said Santiago.

In preparation for the costs for their deep-dive into land use planning and largescale building development, the select board included a warrant article in its annual town meeting last year to appropriate $120,000 for its legal account.

“The town approved the article and with it took ownership of its future,” said Santiago. Prior to that vote, the Worcester family verbally agreed to reimburse the town for any and all monies associated with its due diligence on the flagpole project, while at the same time working on a formal reimbursement agreement with the town.

A group photo of the Worcester family
Morrill Worcester (center) and his sons Mike (left) and Rob. Photo courtesy Flagpole of Freedom Park/Break the Ice Media.

Prior to both the moratorium and the town vote on the legal fund account, a $28,291 payment was received from the Worcester family to the town in September 2023 with further advisement by Rob Worcester that their intent was to continue reimbursement but that the formal agreement the town proposed was unacceptable due to a requested $150,000 escrow amount.

Rob Worcester at that time said: “All costs incurred by the town of Columbia Falls have been paid in full and will continue to be fully reimbursed throughout the course of the project. The municipality’s reimbursement agreement sought a significant cash investment upfront, which would have tied up critical capital at this stage of planning and development. With that said, the commitment from park developers to continue to reimburse costs invested by the town of Columbia Falls remains in force.”

“That I believe all changed when we made the decision that we needed more time to do our planning properly, opting for a moratorium vote to get us that time,” said Santiago. “We had to move forward for what was in the best interest for the town.”

Dixon confirms there has been no word to date on the proposed written reimbursement agreement. “The Worcesters refused to sign the payment agreement proposed by the select board, and they did not engage in negotiating an alternative agreement,” says Dixon.

While the town approved $120,000 for legal costs, the actual cost of the town’s legal work with regards to largescale commercial development over those last two years according to town records was $74,799, in addition to the previously billed and reimbursed amount of $28,291.

Santiago noted that some money from the $120,000 town-authorized allocation was also used for other legal matters the town was dealing with and that as of February 8 the balance remaining is $25,968.58, which will carry forward to be used in 2024. “We have included in this year’s warrants a request for an additional $40,000 for the town’s legal account,” says Santiago. 

Possible new town office 

In another move with the town’s future in mind, the select board has approved attorney Amanda Methot of law firm Bernstein Shur in Portland to seek out grants for the town’s future use to possibly purchase land and construct a new town office facility. 

Methot participated in the town’s due diligence as it relates to land use planning, specifically stewarding the town’s survey that was conducted prior to the moratorium vote in 2023. “This will be discussed at our upcoming annual town meeting,” advised Santiago.

“So years before I was on the select board, the board at that time gave the elementary school that was owned by the town, but had been closed, to the Worcester family’s Wreaths Across America organization. An agreement was reached that the town would lease space for $1 per year,” said Santiago. The lease agreement automatically renews every 20 years. The current lease is set to renew in 2034.

He noted at that time the school was in major disrepair and Columbia Fall students had a choice to attend schools in Harrington or Addison. 

“As a town office, we have use/access to the library, tax assessor’s office and select board office,” said Santiago. “We can only use the gymnasium if we ask permission.”

He noted the select board had been giving thought for some time of the town having its own building and that the primary reason is for security. “We alone do not use the current building,” says Santiago.

Asked about the current status of the relationship between the Worcester family and the town’s administration, Santiago offers that since the family’s recent decision on the flagpole project there really has been no communication.

“We continue to do business with the Worcesters with regards to snow removal and road maintenance as we have done each year,” said Santiago.

Columbia Falls has 17 miles of roads, and for years a Worcester-owned business, County Concrete, has provided the service of maintaining the roads at a recent budgeted annual cost of approximately $110,000 per year.


RJ Heller, Quoddy Tides

RJ Heller is a freelance journalist, essayist, photographer and author whose work appears in the Quoddy Tides and other publications. He is an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.
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