Bridgton braces for historic vote

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Next Tuesday, the people of Bridgton will chart their economic future for years to come, as they vote on a historic citizens’ initiative seeking to ban fast food

HOW WILL THE FACE OF PORTLAND STREET LOOK? — Voters will set the tone as to how development along Route 302 in Bridgton will take shape in the coming years when they decide whether to ban big box stores and formula fast food restaurants. (Rivet Photo)

restaurants and big box stores in town.

The March 1 secret ballot referendum caps nine months of controversy that began when McDonald’s Corp. announced plans last June to build across from Hannaford Supermarket on Portland Road. Although McDonald’s won local approval on Jan. 4 for the project, and is expected to soon be granted state stormwater system and wetlands permits as well, a yes vote on next Tuesday’s fast food ban will stop the project in its tracks, since the question contains a “reachback” clause making the ban retroactive to Dec. 1, 2010, when the project was still pending.

Passions running high

Passions have run high on both sides since nearly the beginning, and have really heated up in these final days, following a two-hour Feb. 8 public hearing that drew a crowd of nearly 150 people. Political signs urging “yes” or “no” votes on fast food restaurants and big boxes are popping up on the backs of pickup trucks and in front of Main Street businesses.

Around 35 people, including Selectman Paul Hoyt, attended Friday’s showing sponsored by referendum supporters of Our Town, a documentary showing how the people of Damariscotta, population 4,050, rose up to stop a 170,000-square-foot Wal-Mart project from proceeding in their town. The group did a targeted mailing on Tuesday urging “yes” votes on March 1, have created posters for their cause and will also be doing a phone calling campaign.

The mailing was a post card featuring a photo of the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, which the group’s leader, Scott Finlayson, calls “a symbol of collaboration and community” that shows what people can accomplish when they work creatively together on a cause they believe in. McDonald’s is a “bellweather” company for bringing in other fast food restaurants like Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken to Bridgton, they say. Bridgton is vulnerable to multi-national companies like Wal-Mart, which are building smaller stores to grab even more of the market share from independent business owners in America.

“Remember, this is your opportunity to make a difference. It’s in the hands of the citizens, not of developers or multi-national corporations,” Finlayson said. “I hope we win, I really do. It’s going to create a new Bridgton, one way or the other.”

An opposition group calling itself Citizens For Responsible Growth has sprung up to counter the efforts of — and they too have been busy.

Citizens For Responsible Growth, with its own Facebook page, has collected names of 71 Bridgton businesses that do not support the referendum questions, believing them to be too restrictive. The bans will have a chilling effect on attracting new investments to a town that badly needs new jobs, and will prevent some existing local businesses from being able to expand.

The group on Tuesday asked the Planning Board to recommend to selectmen that a committee be immediately formed to begin drafting a comprehensive land use regulation ordinance that residents can vote on by this November. Such a committee would work alongside the appointed Comprehensive Plan Committee and be comprised of both the pro-ban and anti-ban groups, members of the planning board and board of selectmen, Lakes Environmental Association, the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, Bridgton Hospital and the local public.

Finlayson said Tuesday that any local efforts at creating zoning in Bridgton need to emphasize the importance of preserving Bridgton’s unique small-town character.

“The state of Maine has recognized that Maine’s greatest asset is that we are not New Jersey or Massachusetts — we have a quality of place. That’s our greatest asset, and that’s what we need to protect,” Finlayson said.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. March 1 at the Bridgton Town Hall, located on North High Street.

The questions

The first question asks whether fast food restaurants and/or formula restaurants should be prohibited under the site plan review ordinance, and defines such establishments as “restaurants that prepare food and beverages on site for public sale and are required by contractual or other arrangements to utilize any of the following: prescribed employee uniforms, interior and exterior color schemes, architectural design, signage, name, presentation format, or similar standardized features which cause the restaurant to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.”

The second question asks whether a limit of “30,000 gross square feet in the aggregate” should be imposed on any “retail developments located in a single building, a combination of buildings, single tenant space, or combination of tenant spaces.” It further defines that “gross floor area in the aggregate means the indoor and outdoor space utilized for retail display and sale of goods and shall be aggregated to include adjacent buildings when those buildings (1) are operated under common ownership or management and are engaged in the selling of similar or related goods, wares or merchandise as the proposed development, (2) share check stands, a warehouse, or a distribution facility with the proposed development, or (3) otherwise are operated as associated, integrated or cooperative business enterprises with the proposed development.”

The people speak

Finlayson took the petition route after first going to selectmen in November and asking them to direct the planning board to revamp the site plan review ordinance. Selectmen declined. At the Feb. 8 public hearing, Woody Woodward said Finlayson “did exactly what we were saying people should do. At the time we chose not to (make a recommendation to the planning board), and the reason I chose not to, was that was far beyond what we as a board could decide — it had to be decided by the people.”

Here’s a sampling of other public hearing comments, both pro and con:

Dan Macdonald, owner with his son Bill of the local Macdonald Motors car dealership, which employs 20 people with a payroll of over $1 million a year, said he has “some personal plans” that would be prevented from going forward if the big box ban passes. “I do not want to take those personal plans out of Bridgton. 30,000 square feet is not enough for many, many type of successful businesses,” he said.

Macdonald recalled that people came together and negotiated for change when the downtown revitalization project began in 1986-87. “Bridgton was falling apart. The town looked worse than you could imagine.” He said “A crew just like this stepped up and under direction of then Town Manager Phil Tarr, took the bull by the horns, we got a block grant, got a lot of local support, and rebuilt the downtown from the traffic light to the top of main hill by Tom’s Homestead Restaurant. We wanted it to retain a New England village atmosphere.”

Macdonald said that at the same time, Route 302 was seen as the appropriate area for future commercial growth, though neither Hannaford nor Hancock Lumber was there at the time. “It was seen as an area that would not impact the downtown, and would provide jobs,” he said.

Mary Jewett, who works as an educator for Lakes Environmental Association, said “If Home Depot came in, how long would it be before Hayes True Value went out of business? Because of the design of companies like Wal- Mart, they go in to take as much business out of the town as possible. We need sustainable growth, and sustainable growth isn’t about going out and getting the biggest business you can find to put out all the other businesses. People say Wal-Mart won’t come in here, because there isn’t the economy base, but what if they just decided to? Pass these ordinances and then (the town can) tweak them a little bit— that will prevent that initial drive for people coming in until we can get a comprehensive plan in place to have more regulations.”

Mark Lopez, McDonald’s developer and a member of both the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation and the Bridgton Economic Development Committee, said at the hearing that he thought it was “very telling” that of all the businesses he’d talked to about the petitions — it was 41 at that point — “only three of them were approached by the petitioner. These are people that make there living here, that work here, that live here. They’ve not been approached, they’ve not been consulted. These are the people we need to worry about, the people that provide jobs in the community.”

Julie Forbes, a local naturopath, said, “Everybody here cares about Bridgton. There’s potentially some pain and potentially some gain, and that’s always a great motivator. Whatever the decisions we vote on March 1, the more painful that is, the better. Because that will mean that people will stay involved, and come together for good solutions. She favored passage of the amendments because they “would buy us some time while we put in place some ordinances to protect what we all know and love here. To buy us some time, not to say Bridgton is closed, but maybe a sign that says ‘Gone Fishing – We’ll be Back.’” Forbes said Wal-Mart “is basically turning into a distribution center for China” and Bridgton’s unique character would be compromised if such national chains were allowed in town.

Bob McHatton Sr., a selectman for 23 years, said his anti-zoning stance while on the board was “probably the number one reason you have no ordinances to support your comprehensive plan.” He said he’d “like to see the energy that is here tonight to form a committee to create zoning in this town that would be in a commercial district, not a total townwide zoning.” McHatton urged residents to vote “no” on the questions because  “I really believe these two amendments are anti-business. They didn’t intend to do that, but that is the message it sends out, that Bridgton does not want to do business.”

Anne Overman said she had been on Finlayson’s side of the debate, but changed her mind. “It’s inevitable that this will happen. How can you make Bridgton this little tiny thing that just stops in the center of the universe. And nothing comes in or comes out?” She said, “We have to work together. Look at this group, how awesome is this? Some are on this side, some are on that side, some are in the middle — and I just switched to the other side. And I really believe if it’s done tastefully, there’s no way it’s going to stop. We don’t have the power to stop it and become this little bubble in the world, so if we work together, let’s do it.”

Nelle Ely, who worked in commercial real estate from 1956 to 1980, said the town should focus on growing its local businesses. “When we look to going out to bringing in Wal-Mart, or this one or that one, they have a bottom line and if that bottom line fails they move out of town and leave an empty building. We need to talk to our business people that are here already and promote what they do and what we can do to make Bridgton beautiful. We need to promote Dan (Macdonald’s) business, we need to promote the building on the hill on Route 117 (Howell Labs). We need to put our interests in where it pays off the best dollars, and it will never be in chain stores. Because they will take the money and leave. Dan will stay here. And be part of Bridgton and bring his kids up here. We want to promote Bridgton with our own local people. Chain stores, it’s an easy fix. Were all going to lose.”

Bill Macdonald said national chains can co-exist harmoniously with independent businesses. “What really bugs me about this warrant, my grandfather started Macdonald Motors out of a small shop down by the first traffic light in town. He’d drive down (to Portland) and pay everything he had to buy a car, drive it back, put it in the showroom and sell it, and then go get another one.” When his uncle and father came into the business, it moved over to Nulty Street and eventually to North Conway, N.H. before expanding out to its present location on Route 302. “If this ordinance passes, we are not allowed to expand any larger than we currently are in town. Currently we sit at 80,000 square feet with a retail showroom, building and the cars on the lot. I’m a small car dealership in regard to others in the state. I moved back to this town with the intention of growing this car dealership in this town because I love it. I don’t want to be limited by something that is as restrictive as this ordinance. I highly urge everyone here to think about the families who grew up in this town, who expanded in this town, who want to see this town grow who want to keep the integrity of this town and do it together. Please vote no.”

Jim Mains, director of the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said his members are on both sides of the big-box/fast food debate, but summed it up for many when he said that the key to a solution is, “I think it’s time we got off our tails, took the bull by the horns and do what we gotta do – I don’t think that bashing the selectmen or the planning board’s going to do us a bit of good. What we’re going to have to do is stick together and take a look at what’s the best for everyone. I see a lot of talent in this room, on both sides of the aisle. This is very difficult, but the turnout tonight is very encouraging. Let’s continue this momentum.”

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