Comp planners ‘reject any charge’

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The Bridgton Comprehensive Plan Committee on Monday voted 5 to 3 (Lucia Terry, Bob Wiser and Greg Watkins opposed) to reject the mission and charge statement given to them by selectmen a week earlier. The next day, Committee Vice Chairman Peter Morrison resigned, citing the “amount of disagreement” between the committee, selectmen and the town manager as his reason. Morrison, until recently the committee’s co-chairman, declined further comment.

The motion by member Dick Danis, made as the meeting began, was just 11 words: “We reject any charge given to the Comprehensive Plan Committee by the Board of Selectmen.” It was seconded by Glen “Bear” Zaidman, whose proposal to go directly to the Bridgton Planning Board with a recommendation to amend the Site Plan Review Ordinance sparked the dispute with selectmen and the town manager, who felt the committee went beyond its authority.

Selectmen and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz gave the committee its marching orders in a Feb. 28 joint meeting that was intended to try to resolve the dispute. Berkowiz, “with input,” he said, had drawn up a renewed mission and charge statement that said, among other things, “At no time shall the committee take any initiative that would implement any aspect of the existing or updated plan.”

Committee members believe they were given two distinct jobs to do following the contentious “yes/no” vote of March 2011 that failed to enact a ban on big box stores and fast food restaurants. They maintain that they were asked to update the existing 2004 Comprehensive Plan and also develop design standards for the town’s major transportation corridors, particularly along the Portland Road where a McDonald’s restaurant was approved in January of 2011 after months of often bitter controversy.

It was in the spirit of working on that latter task that Zaidman recommended the committee ask the planning board to consider an amendment that would require parcels of 20,000 square feet or greater in a new Village Center District to be used for retail, professional or mixed use — and require the ground floor of mixed use projects to be reserved for retail or professional use only.

Selectmen said their issue wasn’t with the content of the amendment, but that it should have come to selectmen first. They pointed out that it is not the committee’s job to implement the plan, but to update it.

After Danis’s motion was approved, Watkins made a motion suggesting substantial revisions to the document given to them by selectmen. He suggested removing all reference to a “charge,” noting that, as far as he is aware, no other town-appointed committee has been given a written charge.

Member Fred Packard went further in agreeing with Watkins that no other committee has ever had a charge, and said that, if anything, a mission statement should suffice.

Referring to the Feb. 28 meeting and Berkowitz, Packard said, “I do feel we were being treated like a bunch of fifth graders by a bunch of fifth graders who were listening to the wrong person.”

Berkowitz disputed those statements in a later telephone interview. He said that the Budget Committee and the Investment Committee both were given charges at the start of their work. At last Thursday’s Sewer Committee meeting, he suggested that committee also develop a charge.

Watkins’ motion, which was tabled until their next meeting on Monday, March 26, also removed Berkowitz’s language requiring members to maintain, for at least five years, any e-mail correspondence from one member to another on home computers, as well as language barring the meeting of a few select members at someone’s house as a violation of the Right-to-Know law.

A so-called “Sunset” provision, providing that the committee would go out of existence once they have delivered a final plan to voters, was kept intact, although several members believe their work should be ongoing, so that the updated plan’s recommendations will have the best chance of being implemented. Selectmen envision the Community Development Committee doing the implementation work, however, perhaps by expanding their committee to include several of the comprehensive plan members who are interested in continuing.

Comprehensive Plan Committee member Chuck Renneker said that, as far as he was concerned, “this is all about control,” referring to Berkowitz. “The town manager is simply upset because something happened that he couldn’t control,” he added, noting that Berkowitz called selectmen into an emergency executive session “within hours” of learning that the committee had taken Zaidman’s proposed amendment directly to the planning board.

“We don’t need a charge. We’re doing just fine,” said Renneker.

Danis agreed, saying that if the committee didn’t take a stand against accepting a charge that it would “open a door" toward requiring all town-appointed committees to have a charge imposed upon them.

Renneker appeared to favor some kind of compromise, however, noting that “we were appointed by selectmen, and we’re responsible to them.”

That prompted Zaidman to say that “First, we should answer to the people of this town, and then to selectmen. This committee can’t do anything different. This is wasting our time once again.”

Renneker repeated, referring to selectmen, “They are our bosses,” even though “I can dig my heels in as well as anyone else.” Terry said she supported the intent of Danis’s motion, but voted against it because it sounded too harsh. “I would soften the language.”

That’s when Watkins suggested revising the document to change it into a mission statement, “and no longer use the word charge.”

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