Petitions seek fast food, big box bans

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

It’s official. Two petitions were submitted Monday at the Bridgton Municipal Complex that call for a ban on formula restaurants and big box stores in Bridgton.

If the two separate petitions are deemed to be legal under state laws governing citizen initiatives, then the Board of Selectmen will be obligated to call for a special election within 60 days from Monday, meaning a townwide vote would need to be held by March 3 at the latest.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said the town’s attorney will be determining the legality of the petitions this week, prior to the selectmen’s next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 11. At that time, the board is required to take action on the petitions, Berkowitz said. The petitions were circulated by resident Scott Finlayson and several supporters following the Planning Board’s approval of the McDonald’s Restaurant project across from Hannaford’s Supermarket on Dec. 6.

“The selectmen have the ability to make a recommendation, either for or against, that would be printed on the ballot — or they could choose to take no position,” Berkowitz said.

Town Clerk Laurie Chadbourne said Tuesday she validated 286 signatures on the petition calling for a ban on formula-based restaurants and validated 298 signatures on the petition calling for the a cap on retail store development to 30,000 square feet. A total of 229 signatures were needed, based on voter turnout in Bridgton in last November’s elections. There were 14 invalid signatures on each petition; the result, Chadbourne said, of duplications in some cases and the signators not being registered as a voter in other cases.

Fast food ban

The first petition calls for a referendum vote to amend the town’s Site Plan Review Ordinance by adding the language “Fast food restaurants and/or formula restaurants shall be prohibited” under the ordinance’s Special Regulations section. It also adds a definition for “fast food restaurant and/or formula restaurant” as a type of restaurant that uses “prescribed employee uniforms, interior and exterior color schemes, architectural design, signage, name, presentation format, or similar standardized features which cause the restaurant to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.”

The ban would apply to any developments pending before the planning board on or after Dec. 1. The McDonald’s Restaurant project, which still is awaiting state Department of Environmental Protection permit approvals, is grandfathered because the initial application was made in May 2010.

The petition states that the ban is needed because fast food chains “threaten the viability of the downtown, create traffic congestion, and put an undue burden on our town’s infrastructure and economy.” The petition further states that banning fast food restaurants “will support the local economy and preserve the scale and character of Bridgton.”

Big box ban

The second petition calls for the site plan review ordinance to be amended to add a subsection under “Performance Standards — Relationship to Surroundings” as follows: “For retail developments located in a single building, a combination of buildings, single tenant space, or combination of tenant spaces, shall not exceed 30,000 square feet of gross floor area in the aggregate.” It also adds a definition of “Gross floor area in the aggregate” as “the indoor and outdoor space utilized for retail display and sale of goods and shall be aggregated to include adjacent buildings” when those buildings are operated under common ownership and/or share a distribution facility or otherwise operated as an integrated business.

The petition states that the limit on the size of retail development is needed to “preserve the small town character of our community” and that “huge retail stores will threaten the viability of the downtown, create traffic congestion, and put an undue burden on our town’s infrastructure and economy.” It also repeats the fast food petition in saying that limiting retail size of new developments “will support the local economy and preserve the scale and character of Bridgton.” And as with the fast food petition, it would apply to all developments applying for permits or approvals in town on or after Dec. 1.

Berkowitz said it would be unlikely for the board of selectmen to ask the planning board to study the issues of fast food restaurant development and big box stores and perhaps come up with their own amendments to the site plan review ordinance.

“Do we really want the planning board, who has to enforce the ordinance, be the one to create it?” he said. “It would be putting them in a position where they can be seen as being prejudicial.”

Berkowitz said the board of selectmen also has the option to call for a counter-referendum, but that’s a remote possibility, “because it really gets confusing” when too many questions on the same issues are put before voters.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins, for his part, said he is glad that the issue of formula stores is coming to a vote in Bridgton.

“I want this to come to a clear-cut vote, that this town makes its preference known one way or the other,” he said. “I signed both of the petitions to get it to a vote.”

Collins said the town has a huge problem with being ambiguous on the issue of big box store development. He served on the Comprehensive Plan Committee in 2002, and at that time “there was a clearly voiced opinion that the town doesn’t want big box stores.” However, the existing site plan review ordinance does not reflect that sentiment, and would, in effect, allow such development, since there has been case law that towns cannot use the Comprehensive Plan as a basis for making their decisions on development projects. The same goes for fast food restaurants, as the approvals of, first, the Dunkin Donuts Restaurant, and more recently, McDonald’s, illustrate.

Alan Manoian, Bridgton’s director of Economic and Community Development, said his office is taking no position on either one of the petitions, but instead is focusing its efforts on ramping up a new Comprehensive Planning Committee. That committee would likely begin meeting in February and take six to nine months to hash out what townspeople want the town of Bridgton to look like over the next 10 years.

Bridgton’s last Comprehensive Plan was completed and passed by a narrow margin in 2005.

“The actual community participatory process is what’s going to help this community moving forward,” Manoian said. “We want everyone to become reacquainted with what is a comprehensive plan and how does this become translated into our ordinances.

Manoian said he’d like the Comprehensive Planning Committee to take a look at whether the current plan has worked for the town of Bridgton, and if not, why not.

Petition-writer Finlayson, in a letter to the editor, said the residents need to “draw a line in the sand and create a new business plan for the town that makes us friendly to the small entrepreneur and hostile to the mega-chains.” He said Montpelier, Vt. banned fast food chains years ago, “and the diners and cafes are wonderful.”

Finlayson and others are concerned that fast food chains would hurt the ability of independent restaurants to stay in business. “These are our friends and neighbors who have a stake in this community,” he wrote.

Finlayson believes Bridgton ultimately needs zoning. “We have to have the laws in place to defend those positions,” he wrote. “We just need the will to do it and the result will be worth it.”

Please follow and like us: