WISCASSET — Many questions remain after an overwhelming majority of residents voted last week to end the town of Wiscasset’s controversial lawsuit against the Maine Department of Transportation related to the department’s plan to ease traffic flow in the historic village.

The biggest question might be how the town will pay for the legal fees it has accrued since filing suit against the DOT in November. Members of the select board have been quiet ever since Ralph Doering III offered to foot the bill for the town’s legal costs, which have approached $54,000.

Doering rescinded his offer after the town vote last week to dismiss the lawsuit. Mark Robinson, a representative of the Doering family, said the family has instructed its escrow agent to terminate the unsigned agreement (with Wiscasset) after town officials failed to respond to it, and after voters indicated they do not want litigation to continue.

There was no mention of the bills or Doering’s offer during Tuesday night’s board meeting.

The board voted 4 – 1 to dismiss the town’s lawsuit against the DOT without prejudice; although, Katherine Martin-Savage said she wanted to wait until a Portland judge ruled on a motion for a preliminary injunction before ending the suit.

Selectman Ben Rines, a staunch advocate of the lawsuit, said the people spoke loudly at the ballot box last week and awaiting a ruling that may never come “just drags out the process.”

Judy Colby, chairwoman of the board, said she hated to see the town divided and was hopeful that things would improve moving forward, both with the DOT and Wiscasset residents.

“We need to go to MDOT again and at least have our voices heard,” Colby said. “They may not listen, but I think that’s important.”

To the dismay of some of the more than 50 people in the standing-room only crowd, the board didn’t address the town’s legal bills, which will likely approach $100,000 when invoices for March and April are received.

Doering set aside $75,000 in an escrow account to fund the town’s lawsuit against the DOT, but he said he had not received any response from the Board of Selectmen or the town manager since he sent a letter to the town in January.

“The silence of town leaders on the offer to pay all legal fees mirrors the town’s response to an offer Doering made in 2017, on at least three separate occasions, to have a traffic engineering expert present his findings about the MDOT plan to the Wiscasset Select Board,” said Mark Robinson, who represents Doering.

“On each occasion, the offer was met with silence from the select board and the town manager.”

Town Manager Marian Anderson said the town has paid Murray, Plumb & Murray a total of $53,446.47 for legal services billed in November, January and February. There are still outstanding bills for services rendered in March and April. The town is still awaiting those bills.

She said the Board of Selectmen will discuss the next steps once all the bills are received, and there would have to be a special town meeting if the board requests to appropriate additional funds.

The town paid $20,000 in legal fees from the contingency account and paid the remaining balance from the contracted services account. The board has had no other discussions on accepting the funds offered by Doering other than to state that it would not accept the funds without resident approval.

Residents have been vocal about whether it is appropriate for the town to accept private funds for a lawsuit filed by the town.

Wiscasset Thinks Forward, a community group that was vehemently opposed to the lawsuit, took an official position against accepting money from outside sources.

Lonnie Kennedy-Patterson, the group’s unofficial spokesperson, said the group would like to see the Board of Selectmen withdraw money from the town’s investment account to cover the legal fees.

“Our position is that although it is legal to take the donated money, it is highly unethical,” she said.
Seaver Leslie, a Wiscasset resident, said it’s unfortunate the town decided against accepting Doering’s offer.

The town had a good chance to win its lawsuit, he said, which would have put “us in a strong position to negotiate” with the Department of Transportation.

“Dropping the suit doesn’t end Wiscasset’s need to work with MDOT to design a traffic solution that improves flow and safety and also protects small businesses and the historic character of the village,” Leslie said.

There is nothing that legally states that the DOT must work with Wiscasset following the dismissal of the suit. The department, if it chooses, could move forward with the project as it’s currently proposed without answering to Wiscasset.

But DOT Press Secretary Ted Talbot said once the lawsuit is formally dismissed, the DOT “looks forward to working with the town on this regionally significant project.”

Earlier this month, lawyers for both sides argued before a justice of the Business and Consumer Court in Portland after the town filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt work on the project.

Justice M. Michaela Murphy did not make a decision after two days of arguments by attorneys and testimony from a Wiscasset business owner, William Pulver, director of project development and deputy chief engineer for DOT and DOT project manager Ernie Martin.

The transportation department has contended that the town’s historic preservation ordinance is not a zoning ordinance, and therefore it isn’t forced to comply with the ordinance under state law.

The town argued that the project, and numerous components, must comply with the town’s historic preservation ordinance and must receive one or more certificates of appropriateness from Wiscasset’s historic preservation commission.

The state’s latest plan was unveiled two years ago and promised to improve traffic flow at its worst by 12 percent to 14 percent, mostly by adding two traffic lights and curb extensions in the village — components that nobody opposes.

But it also seeks to remove parking on Main Street — currently 23 spaces — and parts of key side streets, measures that the state says account for just 2 percent to 4 percent of flow improvement.

Talbot said bids were opened last week and contracts are typically awarded within 30 and 60 days. He said construction would likely start in June and be completed in June 2019.

The Hagget building is not part of this project, Talbot said, and its future has yet to be determined.