Seeing red, not blue

This has been a spring of discontent in some quarters in Rockland.

Main Street and its parallel Union Street have been torn up, causing headaches for pedestrians and motorists. There is frustration by some merchants but others acknowledge that it is a temporary pain that will soon be replaced by beautiful new sidewalks.

This is coupled with the controversy that had dominated the last three meetings of the Rockland City Council over whether the Brass Compass restaurant should continue to be allowed to have tables and chairs at the city park adjacent to its building. That came to a conclusion – for this year at least – when the council approved Monday night an agreement for the remainder of 2012.

Many citizens have pointed out that the city is spending too much time on this issue while Rockland’s neighbor Thomaston is enjoying a retail construction boom.

But mole hills are often turned into mountains in the political world of Rockland, particularly when the summer temperatures rise.

In the summer of 1999, there was the infamous Blue Line controversy.

The city had for many years prior to 1999 talked about creating a Rockland Harbor Trail. Supporters envisioned a trail that would wind from the Owls Head line to the Rockland Breakwater. But the process had bogged down and there was little money in Rockland for a formal trail system. Rockland has had one of the highest property tax burdens in the state for many decades. There was no support in 1999 for building sidewalks and erecting fancy signs to tell tourists how to get from here to there.

The Rockland harbor master at the time, however, decided to take matters into his own hands. His solution to the lack of money was to simply direct a work crew to paint a blue line along what would eventually be the trail. This was sort of like legendary WKRP radio newsman Les Nessman using tape to mark out where his office walls would be if he had any walls.

The reaction to the blue line was, well let’s say that it was less than enthusiastic although it  was not as poorly received as WKRP’s legendary turkey giveaway.

The painting of the blue line was done early in the morning before most people were out and about the streets. Many merchants called the police department when they arrived to their shops, believing that vandals had vandalized the sidewalks. When it was determined that city workers were the ones who deserved the credit – or blame – the city council entered the fray.

Then Councilor Elizabeth Gifford Stuart complained that if young people had done what city workers had done, the youths would be spending time at the Maine Youth Center. The council spent a few meetings debating the matter while being skewered by the public.

In the end, the blue line survived, as did the harbor master. The blue line has survived for 15 years through all kinds of extreme weather and foot traffic. The construction of the new sidewalks downtown this year, however, is removing all but a few of the final remnants of that paint job from 13 years ago.

So as the blue line fades into history, so will the controversy over tearing up Main Street sidewalks in June. Of course the city added insult to injury when its unrelated Big Dig sewer construction project was located smack dab in front of the recreation center on Tuesday. The recreation center is where Rockland holds its voting. There were complaints from citizens of having such an obstacle for voters on election day. A few years ago when there was interior construction being done at the recreation center, voting was held at city hall. But that was not done this year.

Only 568 out of 4,753 registered voters of Rockland turned out to vote on Tuesday. There were primary races for Congressional and legislative seats, as well as a $25 million school budget, to decide on but this still attracted a mere 12 percent of voters. Some citizens questioned whether the Big Dig caused the low turnout but the scene was similar across Maine where huge trenches were not being dug outside polling places.

The natives are simply restless in Rockland this spring and are seeing red, not blue.