March 1 vote a battle of two unlikely adversaries
By Gail Geraghty
They are two unlikely adversaries: Mark Lopez, developer of the McDonald’s Restaurant in Bridgton who’s also a member of the town’s Economic Development Committee, and Scott Finlayson, a Bridgton resident with no experience in town politics, much less as a grassroots political organizer.
The two men represent opposite poles of a debate that has this town split down the middle and will soon culminate in a historic vote on March 1 on whether to ban big box development and fast-food and/or formula restaurants in town.
Lopez said Finlayson’s citizen’s initiative that will be decided by voters March 1 to ban both types of development is “unconstitutional and anti-American,” and will result in unintended negative consequences to both established and future business growth.
And, Lopez said, because the petitions that triggered the initiative included language making the ban retroactive to Dec. 1, 2010, it will also most certainly be challenged legally by McDonald’s, whose formal town approval by the planning board didn’t come until Jan. 4, 2011 (Separate state approvals are still pending on the project).
Finlayson said his two proposed amendments to the site plan ordinance are much more than about any one company. The loosely-organized group of concerned residents he represents are not anti-business or anti-development. They say they want to promote “a vibrant and sustainable local economic model that preserves the character and scale of Bridgton while attracting companies and entrepreneurs that will invest in the community,” not take their dollars out of town.
“This is about what we’re going to give away, and what we’re not going to ever get back,” he said. He recalled a quote from a glowing article about Bridgton printed in Downeast magazine: “We’ve got a Renys, but we don’t have a Wal-Mart — yet.”
Finlayson said he tried, in November, to convince the board of selectmen they needed to take a leadership role in having the town’s site plan ordinance amended to protect against the coming advent of national chain stores. They declined, and he was told a citizens’ initiative was his only other option. So he went ahead with a petition drive, and said he added the Dec. 1 date at the end of the petition because that was the date that the petition drive started — not, as Lopez maintains, as a way to prevent the McDonald’s project from happening.
“That’s a flat-out lie,” said Lopez on Monday. “I think this whole petition is targeted at McDonald’s. And it doesn’t take a corporate lawyer to tell you that they (McDonald’s) are not going to sit idly by. They’ve got to fight this. For obvious reasons — because it becomes a blueprint for any other town that doesn’t want a McDonald’s, and they come in, get their approvals, and then the people do a petition.”
McDonald’s has certainly dealt with towns that have passed amendments prohibiting fast-food and/or formula restaurants as a result of their efforts to locate there — the Maine towns of Ogunquit and York have such bans in place. But as for the retroactivity clause in the Bridgton petition, Lopez said, “McDonald’s has never seen anything like this before.” It is without precedent.
Finlayson said he hired a lawyer who specializes in Maine land law, Sarah McDaniel of Gorham, to help him draw up the petition language. As for McDonald’s, he said, “We were all under the impression that since they already had submitted their application, they would not be affected” by the fast-food restaurant ban if passed.
“I didn’t even know that the state law existed,” said Finlayson, referring to the provisions of M.R.S.A. 302, subparagraph 7.A.2.g., which will appear on the ballot before voters March 1. The law known as the “Retroactivity Clause” was brought up to him by Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, he said, when he appeared before selectmen in November to seek action on amending the site plan review ordinance.
He said Berkowitz mentioned the law in the context of explaining alternatives open to him since the board declined to act on his request. Finlayson said he did not request that the language be included, but when McDaniel asked him how far he wanted to go back on pending applications, he said Dec. 1, the date the petition drive started.
“I could have gone back six or eight months,” Finlayson said. “I really didn’t understand it. Mitch said that it exists and it’s available.”
Finlayson’s group met Thursday to plan strategy and has put up a website, www.keepingbridgtonlocal.com, dedicated to the goal “to provide residents with as much information as possible so that they can form their own conclusions for the upcoming vote.” They also plan to run ads publicizing the website.
Lopez thinks Finlayson and his group are being short-sighted.
“He’s trying to scare the people of Bridgton, but I’ve got to believe the people of Bridgton are smart enough,” he said, not to buy into their stance that sprawl and uncontrolled development will result along Portland Road if immediate steps are not taken.
Lopez said established businesses such as Paris Farmers’ Union, Hayes True Value, Macdonald Motors, Brill Lumber and Renys would become “pre-existing non-conforming uses” if the ban against retail development of an aggregate of 30,000 square feet or more is passed. They wouldn’t have been allowed to exist at all, likewise Hannaford’s supermarket or Hancock Lumber, had the ban been in place when they were developed, he said.
“I’m passionate about this not because of McDonald’s but because I believe what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” Lopez said. “I didn’t mention McDonald’s one time in my letter (to the editor) but the fact is that they will bring a $425,000 payroll annually into the local economy. That’s not taking money out of the local economy — that’s what is important to the local economy.”
Finlayson said his intent from the beginning has been simply to impress upon people the need for the town’s ordinances to come up to speed with the intent of the comprehensive plan, which clearly states that big box development should be prohibited, and also states that steps be taken to protect the character of the downtown.
“We believe that unchecked development for development’s sake by partnering with multi-national corporations and out-of-state developers is not in the best interest of our community,” Finlayson said. “The concern of the group is that the current ordinances on the books in Bridgton are inadequate in protecting the community from sprawl and uncontrolled development that will have a detrimental effect on our tax base, land values, tourism, environment and infrastructure.”