Selectmen nix planner, opt for parallel committees

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Bridgton needs new ordinances to guide economic growth, and it needs them sooner than later — even if that means putting aside standard approaches to community planning.

That was the message sent loud and clear by both selectmen and residents to Alan Manoian, Bridgton’s Director of Economic and Community Development, after he outlined his approach Tuesday on making ordinance revisions in the wake of voters’ overwhelming rejection March 1 of a citizen initiative seeking to ban big box stores and formula restaurants.

Manoian argued strongly that Bridgton should begin by updating the comprehensive plan enacted in 2005, and only after that process was well underway should it consider making specific ordinance revisions or create new ordinances. Such a process legitimizes the ordinances, takes advantage of new planning tools and is the foundation of good planning, he said.

“The development of those regulations has to be done in accordance with the comprehensive plan process. That’s Urban Planning 101,” Manoian said. “The comprehensive plan creates the framework for regulations. We’re going to work together and, by so doing, draw in the jobs we so desperately need.”

But selectmen disagreed, saying voters have given them a clear mandate that they want to welcome growth from national chains. While a ban is not the way to protect the town’s character, they said, it’s clear from the public debate that existing standards need to be revised as soon as possible to ease residents’ concerns about possible negative impacts of that growth.

What that will mean is that two “parallel” planning processes need to get underway at the same time — both a comprehensive plan committee and a land use ordinance committee. Both would work in concert with one another, but the latter would rely primarily on the 2005 comprehensive plan. Selectmen pointed out that the town has a state-approved plan in place that would give any new ordinances the legal authority they need to be enforceable; it could take two years or more for a new comprehensive plan to be developed and approved by voters and then the state.

As far as Urban Planning 101 goes, said Selectman Paul Hoyt, “We already have a plan. What the voters have shown us is that the people want a land use ordinance.”

Manoian said it was his professional recommendation that Bridgton not rely on a plan that was completed six years ago, even though he acknowledged that much of its content is still very valuable and relevant. “There’s a great deal (in the plan) that is excellently done. The sad part is that we didn’t enact the vast majority of it in that first critical year,” Manoian said.

Hoyt replied, saying, “My professional feeling is I don’t want to wait 12 to 14 months.”

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz asked Hoyt, “Are you backing the cart into the horse?”

Hoyt pointed out that 150 people showed up at the Feb. 8 public hearing to debate national chain development, after McDonald’s Restaurant won approval to build on the Portland Road across from Hannaford supermarket. “How many more Scott Finlayson’s are going to come down the road” with another citizen’s petition, should another national chain be proposed in town, Hoyt asked.

Manoian said he was only requesting to allow the comprehensive planning process to get well underway for at least two to three months in order to allow for full citizen participation, before tackling any ordinance revisions. He recommended a 31-member committee representing 31 “sectors of expertise,” including neighborhoods, that would begin bi-weekly meetings on April 13 and break out into 12 subcommittees with additional community members who would cover such issues as housing, infrastructure, branding, public space design and transportation. They would hold at least four full community “charettes” and nine neighborhood survey walks before coming up with a first draft by February 2012, with a final draft by April 2012.

Around 200 residents signed up at the polls to become involved in the process.

“We’re on the verge of really bringing it together and doing it right, and I think we’ll be okay,” in terms of development pressures that may be on the horizon, Manoian said.

Selectman Woody Woodward agreed with Hoyt. Referring to Manoian’s comment that the town has been without zoning for 33 years, Woodward said, “I think people will say we waited 33 years and we blew it” because proper standards weren’t in place when McDonald’s came in. He said the reason why the comprehensive plan wasn’t enacted was that he heard people say again and again, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Woodward said he doubted that an updated comprehensive plan would “change dramatically” from the one now in place. “The people are saying we want something soon before other problems develop, to make sure Bridgton grows, but that it grows smartly,” he said.

But Manoian said, “There are deep issues that the town has to determine,” such as what percentage of its land should be designated as growth areas and where that growth should occur, as well as infrastructure issues. However, he said, “I’m ready and able to do it, either way.”

Selectman Earl Cash wondered how effective the comprehensive planning process outlined by Manoian, involving up to 60 or 70 people, could be in developing ordinances without the help from a parallel but more streamlined ordinance committee. “This all has to be melded together, and I would hate to see us stumble or lose it,” in terms of moving the process forward in the proper sequence with “too many people,” he said. “I’m kind of overwhelmed.”

“It is a daunting task,” agreed Manoian. “I’m not interested in dictating” the planning process, he said. “We have to trust each other, and we have to support each other.”

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said it was important to realize that all of the coordination of the comprehensive planning process and any separate ordinance committee needs to take place through Manoian’s office, to avoid confusion. And he added that Manoian’s time is limited. He suggested the board take off his plate the task of refurbishing the historic Town Hall and give it to another organization, such as the Bridgton Historical Society, to coordinate fundraising.

Without proper coordination and the best planning tools, said Berkowitz, “We could move forward and not even know where we’re headed.” He cautioned against any attempts by individual citizens at making “an end run” around Manoian’s office. The comprehensive planning committee needs to take the lead, in order to have “consensus-building along the way, and the people will have been engaged.”

Manoian said planners today have much better tools, such as form-based codes, to produce a better comprehensive plan. “Five years ago is ancient history, in terms of innovative planning,” he said. “That document did not connect effectively with what we’ve lived through in the past few months.”

Woodward said the town is in the process of reconstituting the Economic Development Committee as the renamed Community Development Committee, and that this committee could have reappointments made, in order to begin the ordinance review process.

Manoian was directed to come back in two weeks with recommendations on how each committee should proceed. Cash suggested that the ordinance committee should be required to report back to selectmen on a regular basis with their progress.

Economic Development Committee member Chuck Renneker told the board he hoped its existing members would be allowed to continue to serve, in order to take advantage of their prior committee experience.

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