Town officials in Columbia Falls are discussing a moratorium on big projects like the proposed $1 billion Flagpole of Freedom Park and have also passed a resolution asking the developer to set aside $150,000 with the town for costs associated with its planning.
The discussions represent the first formal response to the ambitious proposal by Worcester Resources to build a sprawling entertainment park that co-founder Rob Worcester described over the summer as “part national monument, art historical adventure, immersive tech-driven museum and architectural wonder.”
On Monday night, the Columbia Falls Select Board approved a proposed agreement that describes the potential planning costs for the Flagpole project as “extraordinary” and predicted they “would have an immediate adverse effect on the taxpayers of the Town.”
“The Project is expected to have a significant impact on, among other things, the existing land uses, natural, cultural and archaeological resources, scenic values, recreational resources, economy, public infrastructure, and rural character of Columbia Falls, Washington County, and the Downeast Region of Maine,” the agreement said.
The proposed agreement between the town and Worcester Resources would require the company to deposit $150,000 with the town to pay for legal and planning costs.
In a statement released Friday, Rob Worcester objected to the proposed $150,000 agreement, but added “we would very much like to find an agreeable figure that meets both the municipality’s needs, and ours.” He said the company has “fully reimbursed” the town “to date” and it remains committed to do so.
As envisioned by the Worcester family, the Flagpole park would attract 6 million visitors and employ 5,000 workers. The flagpole would stand 1,776 feet above sea level, 300 feet taller than the spire of the Empire State Building. The project is estimated to cost at least $1 billion.
For the project to go forward, the town’s voters would need to agree to annex an estimated 10,400 acres adjoining Columbia Falls. If the land were annexed, much of the planning of the project would be handled by the town, rather than regional planners, under a law passed by the legislature at the Worcesters’ request this spring.
The Select Board’s resolution states that the town will “ensure that the voters of the Town have the opportunity to become fully and fairly informed of the scope and scale of potential impacts of the Annexation Proposal and the Project.”
It also contends that “the Developer has failed to respond to the Town’s requests to provide additional information regarding the Project, (and) has declined to enter into an agreement to pay the Town for fees and costs associated with the Town’s evaluation and consideration of the Annexation Proposal.”
In his statement, Rob Worcester reiterated the company’s intention to go forward with the project, saying “We do hope to annex our land under the governance of Columbia Falls as our proposed project moves forward.”
He said the company was not aware the project had been on any Columbia Falls municipal agenda since August.
The Worcester family, which has long-standing ties to Columbia Falls, is also behind the nonprofit Wreaths Across America.
This spring, after the legislature passed the special law that would allow for the annexation, it was widely assumed the annexation proposal would soon go to Columbia Falls voters. However, Worcester Resources told the town this summer that it did not wish to immediately seek a vote on annexation.
“As the project continues to be developed, we have determined that we do not need to pursue annexation quite as quickly as we thought. We expect to have a more definitive timeline in the next 4-8 weeks,” Worcester attorney Tim Pease wrote Aug. 8.
The prospect of a giant development coming to Columbia Falls has nonetheless been a topic of discussion among town officials the past several weeks. The town brought on two lawyers to help begin studying the implications.
“I absolutely think the town is in a much better position now” after hiring the lawyers, said Jeff Greene, a member of the town select board and planning committee.
In his statement, Rob Worcester said they have been approached by public and private organizations, individuals and nonprofits that want to support the Flagpole project. “We continue to explore the business structure so that it is as inclusive as possible for new partners to participate,” the statement said.
Along with passing its request that the developer set aside money for planning costs, the town is also considering a moratorium. The concept came up in Monday’s meeting.
Aga Dixon, the attorney hired by the board, said a moratorium would create “necessary breathing room’’ so the town could develop a “comprehensive regulatory framework’’ for the flagpole project and other big commercial developments.
“It is not unusual for towns to adopt moratoria as they prepare such regulations,” she added.
Greene said a moratorium could last 180 days, but could also be extended. The moratorium would need to be approved by voters, perhaps next spring.
Rob Worcester, in his statement, indicated that the company would be willing to take the project elsewhere if Columbia Falls doesn’t want it.
“If a moratorium is what the majority of residents and municipal officials want to happen in Columbia Falls, that is up to the people of Columbia Falls,’’ he said. “Our project will move forward, and either the state or another municipality will reap the social, tax and economic benefits should Columbia Falls chooses not to support the annexation.”
Town officials are also examining past violations of permitting regulations by Worcester Resources.
In August, The Maine Monitor reported that state environmental regulators had issued a “Notice of Violation” against Worcester Resources after inspectors found the company built several dozen cabins, a restaurant, roads and parking areas without obtaining necessary permits.
Columbia Falls officials have asked the town code enforcement officer to review the cabin project, according to Dixon, the attorney working for the town.
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