Big box, fast food hearing next Tuesday

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

A huge turnout is expected for next Tuesday’s public hearing on the future of big box stores and fast food restaurants in Bridgton.

The joint selectmen-planning board hearing will get underway at 6 p.m. in the basement of the Bridgton Municipal Complex off Iredale Street. It will give residents the opportunity to understand and comment on two referendum questions facing voters March 1, which would require amendments to the town’s Site Plan Review Ordinance.

The first question asks whether fast food and/or formula restaurants should be prohibited in town and provides a definition stating that such restaurants are those that are “substantially identical” to one another regardless of ownership or location by virtue of the architectural design, uniforms, color schemes, signage, name, presentation format or similar standardized features.

The second question asks whether a limit of 30,000 square feet of gross floor area in the aggregate be imposed on any retail establishments in town located in a single building, a combination of buildings, single tenant space or combination of tenant spaces.

Both questions apply to any application that was pending before the town as of Dec. 1, 2010. In the case of the fast food question, the “reachback” provision will, if passed by voters, prevent McDonald’s Corporation from building the 40-seat restaurant and adjoining retail space that was given final approval by the Bridgton Planning Board on Jan. 4.

The second question, if passed by voters, will not only prevent any new retail development in town of 30,000 square feet or more, but will also prevent existing businesses with that much space from expanding. According to Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker, existing businesses that have 30,000 square feet of display area and buildings include Hannaford Supermarket, Hancock Lumber, Paris Farmers’ Union and Macdonald Motors. Hayes True Value, Baker said, is “too close to call,” but likely is under the 30,000 square foot limit.

Existing restaurants such as Beef ’n Ski or the Blackhorse Tavern could be also be affected by question 1, should they decide to open a second “substantially identical” restaurant in town.

Supporters of both referendum questions, who have set up a website, www.keepingbridgtonlocal.com to promote their cause, say the bans are needed because the current site plan review process does little to protect the town’s small-town character from being negatively impacted by national chain development. Just as McDonald’s was able to win approval to build on the Portland Road, across from Hannaford’s, any number of other national chain retail businesses, including Wal-Mart, could also decide to locate along the highway and there would be nothing in place to prevent it.

Such a scenario is not in keeping with the spirit of the town’s comprehensive plan, supporters say, pointing out that the plan expressly states that big box stores should not be allowed in the downtown district.

The March 1 vote was ordered by selectmen after the town validated signatures on two citizen petitions circulated by organizer Scott Finlayson. Selectmen split 3-2 on a vote recommending that voters reject both questions, but the board’s negative recommendation will not appear on the ballot as it is not allowed under state law.

Selectmen voted to recommend that voters reject the referendums on the advice of the Bridgton Economic Development Committee, which believes that if the bans are passed they will have a chilling effect on the ability of their committee and the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation to attract developers willing to invest in town. They support instead the efforts of the office of Economic and Community Development to work on updating the comprehensive plan and creating a form-based code ordinance for the downtown district.

Referendum supporters say they are not anti-business, and that national chains could still locate in town, providing they develop small-scale versions of their stores and develop restaurants with unique architecture, décor and staff requirements.

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