EDC takes on leadership role in big box/fast-food debate

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Bridgton’s Economic Development Committee, which for years has operated mostly in the background of public affairs, is being called upon to take a leadership role in the public debate over whether big box stores and fast-food restaurants should be allowed in town.

They urged selectmen to take a stand against the March 1 special town meeting referendum that would ban both types of development, and on Monday, voted to organize and conduct public forums to educate the public on why they think the citizens’ initiative would have negative development impacts in Bridgton.

At Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting, EDC Chairman Lee Eastman and the rest of the seven-member board were present to explain why they recommended that selectmen go on record opposing both proposed amendments to the site plan review ordinance. The board split 3-2 Jan. 11 on a vote agreeing to go along with the EDC recommendation, only to learn later that, by law, the board’s “do not pass” recommendation could not be included on the referendum ballot.

The board took no action Tuesday to rescind the Jan. 11 vote, but the ballot as printed does not include the “do not pass” recommendation.

Selectmen and the planning board are holding a joint public hearing on the big box/fast-food questions on Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. in the basement meeting room at the Bridgton Municipal Complex, as required by the law for citizen initiatives. Selectmen on Tuesday allowed Eastman to read his letter but deferred commenting on it, preferring to wait until the public hearing when all interested residents or organizations can state their positions. At that time, selectmen can, if they wish, state their positions as residents.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz asked Eastman if the committee was willing to hold public meetings, for the purpose of public dialog, independent of the Feb. 8 public hearing.

“Absolutely,” Eastman said. “Our meetings are public meetings. Everyone’s invited. We welcome anyone who wants to come. It’s an open forum for everyone to give us input.” The committee meets at 7 a.m. Mondays at the municipal complex.

At Monday’s meeting, EDC members voted unanimously that Eastman’s letter would serve as their endorsed position, “and to offer assistance in organizing and conducting public information forums to provide more quality information and understanding of the EDC’s position and development impacts of the proposed ban.”

Prior to the vote, they held a lively discussion defending their position in opposition to both questions voters will decide by secret ballot on March 1.

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.

According to the draft minutes of Monday’s meeting, prepared by Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian, EDC member Jim Mains Jr. said the committee is going to have “a fight on our hands” to convince voters not to pass the questions.

Mains, the executive director of the Greater Bridgton-Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, told The Bridgton News Monday that the Chamber’s executive committee has not yet formalized a position paper on the issue, but will be doing so and making it public prior to the March 1 vote.

“Member Ray Turner stated that a “vacuum” has been unfortunately created as a result of inaction over the past six years by the Bridgton Planning Board and Board of Selectmen to guide and assure more professional and sound town planning and development ordinances and practices,” the minutes state. “The ‘Ban Petition’ effort is not a ‘bad thing,’ but an important opportunity for our town to find a ‘better way’ of directing professional town planning and development,” the minutes state.

Eastman is quoted in the minutes as saying that Bridgton must work towards establishing a firm development “Brand.” There’s a lot of turnover in the downtown among small, local businesses, Eastman said, making it difficult for Bridgton to keep a stable and sustainable business community.

Formula businesses, Eastman is quoted as saying, “will bring the commercial/employment stability the town can build upon; why would Bridgton shun these national businesses?”

Member Chuck Renneker is quoted in the minutes as saying that debate engendered by the March 1 referendum election should be used “as a catalyst to improve our local site plan review ordinance, subdivision ordinance, signage ordinance, etc. and to engage in professional town planning and growth management.” He also stated that the EDC should offer something better and different; “‘We can’t just say we don’t want this, and return to the status quo.’”

Member Mike Tarantino said he was concerned that if the ban petitions were approved, “that Bridgton’s strength as a regional service center will be eroded and weakened.”

Manoian said Monday his office will be issuing its own position statement on the petition questions, independent of the stated position of the EDC as outlined in Eastman’s letter.

“There’s only around a dozen towns or cities across this nation (including Ogunquit and York, Maine) that have adopted or enacted these bans” on fast-food/formula restaurants or big box stores, Manoian said. “It’s new ground for us. Hell, it’s new ground in the whole country.”

And while the affluence of a York or Ogunquit may be able to allow those towns to fill in development despite the bans, Manoian said, “Up here in Bridgton, will that development vacuum be filled? And what kind of development will fill it? The work for us will be much more challenging to fill the vacuum.”

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