Boothbay Harbor selectmen decided March 30 not to pursue a waiver with the Maine Public Utilities Commission delaying the start of seasonal water. On March 23, selectmen had discussed possibly moving the May 1 start date to May 15. That meeting came after an emergency meeting of Boothbay’s selectmen with Southport selectmen considering the delay.
Boothbay Harbor board chair Mike Tomko, Selectman Wendy Wolf and Town Manager Julia Latter joined members from Southport and Boothbay’s select boards in a conference call March 26 with PUC Director of Administration Harry Lanphear, Director of Consumer Assistance Derek Davidson, and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Drinking Water Program Director Michael Abbott. Tomko explained the PUC would decide because it oversees utilities like Boothbay Region Water District. The time to seek a waiver is short as BRWD needs two weeks’ notice for any changes in schedule.
The state officials said they have had no similar requests from other towns with a considerable seasonal population; the peninsula towns are the first to raise the issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(But) water is similar to electricity as a utility. It has to be accessible to homeowners as an essential service,” Tomko said quoting Abbott. “… All people are entitled to services.”
Lanphear and Davidson also said that while the guiding rules for the commission do not take pandemics into account, withholding an essential service is antithetical to how the PUC conducts its business, so a pandemic would not be weighed in for a waiver to delay seasonal water. Abbott added delaying water is a health concern, let alone all the concerns a lack of fresh water would bring about during a pandemic. “The concern is about public health, public safety and fire protection,” said Abbott.
The three towns would not necessarily be required to seek a waiver in unison as the towns’ officials first thought, but it would make an already unlikely waiver even more difficult to pursue alone, Wolf said. It would require a three-person commission which would seek input from seasonal and year-round home and property owners as well as municipal officials.
Selectman Denise Griffin suggested the board drop the issue altogether as it would create an “us versus them” scenario which would divide the community and push people out.
Wolf said Boothbay Harbor would be releasing a letter to the public – “Public Safety for COVID-19” – directing residents and visitors on best practices during the pandemic. The letter will inform seasonal residents what they should do if they come: Have their properties prepared for living ahead of time, bring provisions with them if possible, comply with all state mandates which include self-quarantining for two weeks upon arrival and practicing social distancing thereafter.
Said Wolf, “Our visitors need to also keep in mind that many of our wonderful local amenities are not open at this time.”
Selectmen will meet next via Zoom at 7 p.m. April 13. Information on joining the meeting will be published online.