Huge crowd divided on big box, fast food

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Passions ran high on both sides Tuesday as over 100 Bridgton residents gathered for three hours to debate whether to ban big box stores and fast food chains

Scott Finlayson spoke passionately of the need to pass the big box and fast-food referendum, saying “What kind of town do you want to live in?”

in town.

Opinion was split down the middle among the standing-room only crowd as the people gave voice to their worst fears on both sides — that the town will be sued and economic growth stalled if the bans pass; or that, if they fail to pass, continued national chain development along Bridgton’s Route 302 corridor will destroy forever the small town charm that makes the town so special.

All of the appointed and elected officials who spoke as private citizens at the public hearing urged voters to reject the two citizen initiative secret ballot referendum questions facing voters on March 1. Business owners who spoke were more divided, with the smaller business owners generally in favor of the bans, the larger ones against it.

On one point there was unanimous agreement — that it was great to see so many people in one room who care about Bridgton’s economic future. It’s high time, they said, to take that energy and translate it into zoning regulations that provide protections while also allowing for economic growth.

The residents lined up to speak at microphones that were set up on both sides of the big meeting room downstairs at the Bridgton Municipal Complex. At long tables in the front sat the members of both the Planning Board and the Board of Selectmen, required by state law to hold the hearings following a successful petition drive begun in December to bring the questions to voters.

The first question would amend the town’s Site Plan Review Ordinance by banning fast food or so-called formula restaurants whose corporately-prescribed methods of operation and architectural style are “substantially similar” to one another. The second question would ban new retail development of 30,000 square feet or more and would have the effect of preventing expansion of existing businesses with that much space — i.e., Renys, Hannaford, Hancock Lumber, Brill’s Lumber, Macdonald Motors and others.

‘We stand on solid ground’

Scott Finlayson, who led the petition drive, got the hearing underway with a prepared statement. He said the amendments simply represent what the town’s 2004 comprehensive plan stated, but was never implemented. He said their language was drawn from “hundreds of communities across this country” that have implemented similar bans, including the Maine towns of Damariscotta and York, and which have held up in litigation.

“To the best of my knowledge neither town (York or Damariscotta) has economically dried up and blown away since enacting their amendments,” Finlayson said. “We stand on solid ground, not on thin ice.”

Finlayson said he gets offended when he hears people say York is a wealthy community that can afford to enact such bans, while Bridgton is a poor town where jobs are scarce.

“That implies that because we are poor we should take whatever we can get, and be grateful for it. I disagree; Bridgton has as much right to aspire to be prosperous as any town. We have the quality of life package to present to the world that can support that prosperity,” Finlayson said. “But if we give it all away to out of state developers and giant corporations that remove vast amounts of revenue from our local economy, we will always remain a town of the working poor.”

‘We must have growth’

Selectman Woody Woodward and Planning Board members Ken Murphy and Fred Packard took issue with Finlayson’s argument that the proposed amendments follow the directive of the comprehensive plan. Packard pointed out that the plan designates Route 302 to be a future growth corridor. Woodward said the plan only refers to “unreasonable” big box development as being something that should be avoided.

“I don’t care what anybody says, we must have growth,” Packard said. “If we don’t have growth we’re standing still. And we have in the last few years been going backwards.”

Packard’s words were met with loud applause.

Next up was Jess Blasi, 28, who asked the people in the room to think about the town’s future.

“Who do we want to start catering to? If it’s casinos, if it’s McDonald’s, let me know, so I can get out,” Blasi said.

A major casino is being built a half-hour away in the town of Oxford, and McDonald’s was given planning board approval on Jan. 4 to build a 40-seat restaurant diagonally across from Hannaford’s Supermarket. That approval, however, would be retroactively declared null and void if the ban passes, since the referendum question also contains a “reachback” clause making it applicable to all projects that were pending before the board as of Dec. 1, 2010.

Bill Vincent said the town’s legal standing in enforcing a ban would be weak, since it has already allowed in such national chain development as Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway and the Family Dollar Store. The town’s upcoming budget includes just $18,000 for legal expenses, and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz has said at a previous meeting that he would need to dramatically increase that amount if the bans are enacted.

Bans too restrictive?

Several people said both bans were too restrictive and would negatively impact existing local businesses. The proposed definition for formula restaurants leaves it open to interpretation as to what is meant by “substantially similar” operations, which would cause headaches at the planning board level if, for example, an existing restaurant such as Beef ’n Ski wanted to open at a second location.

Code Enforcement Officer Rob Baker gave his opinion that the Maine-based sandwich shop Amato’s would not be allowed under the fast food ban. He also said that the big box ban would affect expansion of many large retailers in town.

Bob Mawhinney wondered what all the fuss was about, worrying about big box stores. “Big box stores are not going to come here” because Bridgton’s population doesn’t support businesses more than five months out of the year, he said. “We missed our opportunity” as national retail development gravitated toward Windham to the east, and North Conway, N.H. to the west.

“We don’t need social engineering or snob zoning,” Mawhinney said. “It’s ugly. You have to have a balance in a community to make it a home. Let Bridgton grow and not be stagnant. The sky will not fall. This was once the center of commerce. Let’s bring it back. You can still control your downtown and keep it nice.”

Finlayson said his group struggled to decide how restrictive to be on the size of retail development, and settled on 30,000 square feet after researching plans by Wal-Mart to expand over the next few years by building upwards to 300 new, smaller stores of 30,000 to 60,000 square feet.

Steve Stevens, who is redeveloping the old Bridgton Hospital in the downtown, said he is working on bringing in a local restaurant with an existing identity and the ban would prevent that from happening.

“It has the same menu, the same waitresses. However, it’s not a ‘fast food’ restaurant. If this is passed I’ve lost that opportunity” and the 10–15 jobs that would come with it, not to mention the restoration of a historic building.

“If you think about it, the semantics of this is a nightmare. It can’t be done,” he said.

Economic Development Committee member Chuck Renneker said the petitions were “very restrictive, very narrow, and I find it unbelievable” that such bans would even be considered.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Resident Steve Hatch said young people, “moving on to better themselves in life,” would be grateful for the entry-level jobs that fast food restaurants or national retail chains provide. “I’m not a McDonald’s or Burger King fan, but I am for jobs and I do think this is a free America.”

Susan Hatch said it’s important to think about strengthening the economy, “but we also have to think about the citizens. What’s going to make them happy? I’m sure Mr. (Mark) Lopez (developer of the Bridgton McDonald’s) won’t be in the soup line if this doesn’t happen.”

Bridgton in years past has let go of such gems as the Cumberland Hotel and the Gibbs Avenue School. Hatch said, “Maybe people didn’t dare” to speak up and preserve their heritage, and are only now seeing what will be lost if uncontrolled development is allowed to continue unchecked.

“Once you let this virus come in” it’s hard to get rid of it, she said. But Bridgtonites can be tough, she said. “We’re not afraid of a fight. Remember the (plans for) a nuclear waste dump?”

Local veterinarian Nan Beury, speaking tongue-in-cheek, said “If I want to put an outhouse in my front yard it’s my right to do that. It sounds like we’re talking about the same thing.”

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