A short history of zoning in Bridgton

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

When the final public hearing was held Tuesday on Bridgton’s Comprehensive Plan, there was only one comment, by Selectman Bob McHatton, who wanted residents to know that the plan was not, in itself, a zoning ordinance.

And in fact, the proposed update to the 2004 Comprehensive Plan that voters will either accept or reject on Nov. 4 carefully avoids the “Z” word, as some in town refer to zoning. It refers instead to a recommendation to create seven “designations” that would become part of a “Future Land Use Plan.” It recommends the creation of seven identified areas — a Downtown Village Business District, Downtown Village Neighborhood, Inner Corridor, Outer Corridor, Outer Village Neighborhood, Lakeside Neighborhood and Rural Neighborhood.

The creation of such areas under a new ordinance would still need voter approval at Town Meeting. The map in the Comprehensive Plan is “not a zoning map,” the plan states, because its boundaries are general. However, the plan goes on to say that “The map and associated plan will help guide development of the management plan, future zoning, other land use measures and the capital investments program.”

So why all the reluctance to use the word zoning? The answer lies in a short history lesson.

Looking back over old issues of the Bridgton News, it’s not hard to see why folks in Bridgton get a bit twitchy, even now, talking about zoning. Forty years ago, when the town took its first steps at taking charge of its own growth and development, Bridgton’s first Zoning Ordinance was a flawed experiment that ultimately backfired. In the mid-1970s, the debate over zoning was such a hot topic that posters, buttons and even a parade and a competing newspaper sprang up in order to repeal it.

Back then the notion of land use regulation was still in its infancy. The state’s Shoreland Zoning Law and Plumbing Code were the only tools the town had; the town’s Site Plan Review Ordinance and Subdivision Ordinance still hadn’t been written, and sewage still flowed freely into Stevens Brook.

What happened

In 1971, voters at the March 1 Town Meeting narrowly-enacted a new town-wide Zoning Ordinance, establishing residential, commercial and industrial zones. The vote was 285-278. The ordinance was amended on May 29, 1973. A Building Code was enacted on March 5, 1973, and it, too, was amended on May 29 of 1973. More amendments were proposed in subsequent years, some of which passed, some that failed. Meanwhile, the grumbling got louder among the locals, whose favorite hangout in those days was Jon’s Restaurant on Main Street.

It all came to a head in 1977, starting when a group of Main Hill business owners petitioned to change their properties from residential to business. Both residential and business use was allowed across the street, and it didn’t seem fair not to allow both sides of the street the same flexibility.

Their petition, however, was defeated. A committee was working hard to update the town’s first Comprehensive Plan, passed in 1964, but had not yet defined how the town should grow. The state had asked the town to submit “Growth Policy Statements,” and Bridgton was then leaning heavily on advice from the Greater Portland Council of Governments, whose advice was no more specific than suggestions to encourage recreation near Pleasant Mountain and promote academic development near North Bridgton Academy.

The Planning Board was leery of taking too much advice on faith from COG, with one member saying, “I “want to know what we are committing ourselves to.”

Around the same time, controversy arose over whether to allow home-based businesses in the residential zone. The Bridgton News then-editor, the late Eula Shorey, a strong zoning advocate, argued forcefully against such use. But others stressed the need to take the long view and recognize the inevitability of growth in home-based businesses.

Blanket rejection

On April 21, 1977, 10 citizens submitted a petition with 296 signatures calling for the repeal of the Zoning Ordinance. The petition was sparked by Code Enforcement Officer Leo Hamill’s decision to cite businesses that were running home occupations. Petitioners also objected to the need to seek special exceptions from the Zoning Board of Appeals to conduct activities in a particular zone. To people like Jerry Doucette, owner of Lakeside Pines Campground, it seemed like an exception was needed every time he turned around; he wanted to put up a sign, but the CEO wouldn’t let him, and the ZBA concurred.

Doucette ultimately had to turn to Cumberland County Superior Court to finally get his sign.

At a public hearing before the repeal vote, one of the petitioners, Eric Marston, was quoted as saying that one man said, at a hearing, that “People are sick and tired of the petty hassle they have to go through when they conduct small businesses.” Others bemoaned the fact that the ordinance, as written, could not be amended without a two-thirds majority vote of the residents.

Planning Board members urged amending the ordinance instead of a “mass rejection,” but by then the die was cast.

In the weeks leading up to the June 6, 1977, special town meeting on the repeal vote, petitioners wore repeal badges, launched a poster campaign and published their own publication called the Bridgton Free Press, no doubt in response to Shorey’s advocacy on behalf of zoning in The News. In an editorial acknowledging the strength of the opposition, Shorey said the repealers “deserved to win” because they held “pep sessions, did radio ads, had signs at the polls, a phone campaign and a loudspeaker carried their message on the streets on Monday. They even staged a parade the Saturday before the vote.”

After the votes were tallied, and zoning was repealed by a vote of 743-402, Shorey’s editorial comment was short and to the point. “The Silent Majority rallied too late with too little.”

It remains to be seen if voters pass the Comprehensive Plan on Nov. 4, and a “Future Land Use Plan” is subsequently crafted from its recommendations, whether there exists a silent majority of Bridgton residents who are now ready to embrace the need for zoning.

 

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