Comprehensive Plan marching orders made clear

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

He needed clarity, and he got it Tuesday, as the Bridgton Board of Selectmen met in workshop with Director of Economic and Community Development Alan Manoian to spell out the next planning steps following the March 1 vote rejecting bans on big box stores and fast food restaurants along Portland Road.

The board decided it made more sense to have one committee comprised of 11 members instead of two committees working on parallel tracks to update the town’s comprehensive plan.

No more disconnected efforts

“I’d rather have the comprehensive plan (worked on) in one process rather than in the kitchens and living rooms of disconnected efforts,” said Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, referring to special interest groups that emerged to either fight for or oppose the special referendum vote.

The newly-proposed Comprehensive Plan Update Committee would have both short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal, as stated by Berkowitz, would be to work with Manoian to deliver to selectmen by Sept. 30 “a substantially amended site plan review ordinance for Portland Road” that has the “contextual and functionality pattern of design as a regulatory component.”

In other words, a land use regulation — one with teeth, that will reassure residents the town is taking the necessary steps to protect Bridgton’s small-town character from the negative effects of national chain development. The Sept. 30 deadline was chosen with the intent to deliver a document for voter approval by the November election.

The land use regulation would be based on the existing 2004 comprehensive plan, which would at the same time be updated in-house to reflect changes, trends and new information in sections dealing with population, the economy, housing, natural resources, transportation, public facilities and municipal finances.

Selectmen Chairman Art Triglione made it clear that Manoian was the town’s planning expert, and that his professional experience should be trusted as the new committee works to draw up the language for the new ordinance.

Berkowitz suggested that the new committee be co-chaired by Ray Turner, representing the anti-ban group Citizens for Responsible Growth, and Scott Finlayson, representing the pro-ban group, Keeping Bridgton Local. Turner, who was present Tuesday along with around 25 other residents, said he’d be willing to serve in the role, but Finlayson said he wasn’t sure he could make the commitment because of the demand of his outfitting business. Finlayson said, however, that he would “give it serious consideration.”

A town of sustainable villages

Manoian said he’s combed over the existing comprehensive plan many times, and found it interesting that contained in its pages was a proposal for a form of zoning in the creation of neighborhood land use districts.

“We didn’t have the actual regulatory tools to carry it out” at the time, Manoian said, but added, “We now have the regulatory tools to make this happen.”

One such tool is form-based codes, which work with developers to allow a wide variety of uses within a district as long as they conform to design standards that are harmonious with that district’s character. In the case of Portland Road, a commercial district south on Route 302 where McDonald’s Restaurant has been given the green light to build and future national chains are most likely to locate, Manoian said the goal should be to begin to slow the driver down to announce the gateway to Bridgton’s historic downtown.

Manoian suggested that setback standards for buildings there be changed to “build-to lines,” to bring buildings much closer to the road. Sidewalks should be built to provide connectivity, and much of the parking should be on the sides of the commercial stores, instead of in the front, he said.

“If you want a development pattern that reflects a slower pace of life, you need to create a human scale development pattern on Portland Road. Whether we designate it or not, this is where it’s going to go,” he said, referring to national chain development along the two-lane highway.

Selectman Earl Cash cautioned against being too limiting against allowing parking in front of new retail development, citing the case of the Grondin’s development in Windham, which has parking in the back.

“No one even knows if they’re open or not,” Cash said of the Grondin’s development. He told Manoian, “You’re going to get flack” if the proposed setbacks are too limiting on parking.

Manoian suggested a 15-foot setback after sidewalks were accounted for, but indicated he’d be willing to increase that — but only somewhat.

Place of Life

“The physical design must reflect our ‘Place of Life’ — that’s what we’re selling,” he said. If all the town is willing to do is “tweak around with little changes,” he said, “why bother wasting staff’s time?”

Manoian said, “It’s not just architecture, it’s the overall development pattern of the street — the signage and physical placement of the buildings on the street, and how they relate to each other.” Current rules allow a maximum 100-square-foot sign, but Manoian said he’d like that decreased to 48 square feet.

The town doesn’t have a sewer line serving that section of the highway, and with no prospects for eventually having one, he said, “So you can’t change the density” of development.

In the long term, Manoian said he’d be looking to Route 117 outside the downtown, and perhaps Route 302 towards West Bridgton, as more appropriate zones for new industrial and manufacturing development. He said he realized that manufacturing historically had its place on Portland Road, but that commercial and manufacturing uses don’t mix very well within the same district.

Selectman Paul Hoyt said that the committee will need to determine just where the Portland Road corridor begins and ends. He said he liked the idea of closer setbacks for buildings; and Selectman Woody Woodward pointed out that the speed limit slows to 40 miles an hour starting at Sandy Creek, yet drivers act like the speed limit is still 55 miles an hour.

Manoian said the 2004 plan also recommends the creation of historic districts for downtown Bridgton and North Bridgton, but agreed with Cash that placing such restrictions on property owners is not a good idea. “It’s premature for Bridgton. Form-based codes will accomplish so much of what historic districts were trying to do,” he said.

Manoian noted that the Maine towns of Yarmouth, Standish and Gorham and the city of Portland are all in the process of adopting some version of form-based codes. “It’s coming,” he said.

Selectmen agreed that the new committee, once it is formally adopted at their meeting next Tuesday, should begin meeting immediately. Berkowitz said selectmen would make the appointments, initially for a one-year term, and that the committee would also work on the “longer horizon” of updating the comprehensive plan once its work on the land use ordinance for Portland Road is completed.

Hoyt said people might still have concerns about commercial development happening in other areas of town. There, the only protections would be the town’s 24 design review elements, which some see as lacking specificity.

Manoian agreed that targeting just the Portland Road corridor for changes “could be classified as spot zoning.” He added, “That’s why when you do your land use regulations, you do the whole town.”

Woodward said that eventually the town needs to look to make changes in the other neighborhoods, “Because it’s the only fair way to go.”

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