Fayette voters to weigh in on funding for high-speed internet, Starling Hall renovations

A promotional curtain hangs in front of the stage in the second floor room at Starling Hall in Fayette in December 2021. Voters will decide in the November elections whether to allow the city to spend up to $500,000 in appropriate grant funds to complete the building’s renovation. Voters will also decide whether to use $8,000 of the city’s surplus funds to install a security system. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

FAYETTE — In the upcoming November election, Fayette voters will be asked to comment on six local referendum questions on high-speed internet, funding for Starling Hall, changes to the city’s land-use ordinance and a solar moratorium.

“It’s going to be busy,” said Mark Robinson, Fayette City Manager.

Question 1 asks whether voters would support applying for federal, state, or private sources of funding for city officials to pay the full cost of installing high-speed Internet.

The city put two high-speed internet questions on the ballot in June, one asking if voters would approve a municipal fiber optic service through Axiom and the other asking voters if they would approve internet through Redzone Wireless. Voters ultimately rejected both questions. The Axiom proposal would have cost the city an estimated $560,590 and the Redzone agreement would have required the city to spend approximately $385,275.

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Robinson said Redzone reached out to the city to apply for a jump-start program through the Maine Connectivity Authority to fund the city’s wireless efforts. The program would not require local taxation, but officials would need to demonstrate prior voter support for the initiative.

“This gives voters a chance to say they support broadband,” Robinson said. “They just don’t support using real estate taxation to support it.”

The next two questions on the ballot refer to Starling Hall, a building now almost 150 years old and reputed to be Maine’s first Grange Hall. Grange Halls served as places for farmers to discuss cooperative activities and also as places for members of small farming towns to socialize in the 1800s. A group of volunteers have been working to restore its role as a community meeting place.

The exterior of Starling Hall in Fayette in 2016 before it was removed from Route 17. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Question 2 asks if voters would agree to a raising of up to $500,000 to provide matching funds for grants that would allow for the building’s renovation. U.S. Senator Susan Collins has allocated $500,000 in federal funding for the renovation of Starling Hall, but it has not yet been approved as part of the federal budget.

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Joe Young, president of Friends of Starling Hall, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the building’s preservation and maintenance, estimated that it would cost about $1 million to complete all of the necessary renovations, including structural repairs to the roof and raising the first floor to ADA compliance, including adding bathrooms. The group also intends to add an elevator, replace some existing windows and add new ones, install a fire suppression system and add new siding and cladding to the building.

Question 3 asks if voters would agree to use $8,000 from the city’s unrestricted fund or surplus to reinstall Starling Hall’s basic security system.

The two Starling Hall questions were on Fayette’s warrant for the June town meeting, but were filed by November.

Robinson said attendees at the meeting were concerned about the lack of publicity given to the public hearing on these issues.

The next two questions are about changes to the city’s zoning ordinance. Question 4 asks whether voters would favor exempting underground sewage systems, geothermal heat exchange wells, and water wells from the city’s compliance setbacks.

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Question 5 asks if voters would agree to changing the street setback requirement for buildings in the city to 75 feet from the centerline of the street.

Jessica Leighton, Fayette Code Enforcement Officer, said the city’s setback rules are 50 feet from the curb or 75 feet from the centerline, whichever distance is greater.

“That makes it only 75 feet from the centerline of the street down the line,” she said.

Finally, in Question 6, voters are asked if they would support a 270-day solar moratorium for utilities.

Leighton said the planning committee proposed the moratorium so they could issue an ordinance before any major solar projects are presented to the city.

“We want to work on this ordinance throughout next year in preparation for the town meeting,” she said, “and this just sets a moratorium so you don’t get in before we have the rules set.”

The in-person vote will take place on November 8th from 8am to 8pm at Fayette Central School. The deadline for postal ballot applications is November 3rd.

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