So where do we go from here?

We chuckled along with the rest of the crowd at the Feb. 8 public hearing, when Scott Finlayson said that one good thing that came from his petitions to ban big box stores and fast food restaurants in Bridgton was that “The Bridgton News has sold a lot of papers.”

It’s true that folks have turned to us ever since the rumors finally became reality last June — McDonald’s was coming to town. The ink on Mark Lopez’s application to the Bridgton Planning Board was barely dry when the letters started pouring in, most of them cries of alarm. We’re on our way to becoming another North Windham, and there’s nothing in our site plan review ordinance to stop it.

Finlayson took a big gamble and went for an all-out ban, on not just fast food chains but also big box stores (a third ban on hotels and motels was considered, but dropped from consideration). He used the only means left to him, a citizen’s initiative, after selectmen declined to act at the Nov. 16 meeting on his appeal for help. He got more than enough signatures, and on Jan. 11 — exactly one week after McDonald’s was formally approved by the planning board — selectmen scheduled a March 1 referendum vote.

That’s when our coverage really started to ramp up. For eight straight weeks, the latest development in the “battle of two unlikely adversaries” — Finlayson and Lopez — led off our front page. It was a historic vote for many reasons, not the least of which was that, because of a retroactivity clause, the formula restaurant ban would apply to the McDonald’s project, even though it had already been approved. The situation was unprecedented, and Lopez, quite understandably, cried foul and started a campaign of his own.

And as we all know by now, Finlayson gambled and lost by a 2 to 1 margin. Bridgtonites spoke loud and clear in saying that Bridgton needs growth, and banning development is not the way to go.

So where do we go from here? Extremism is out.

To answer that question, let’s back up again just a bit.

There was a second anti-McDonald’s person at that Nov. 16 selectmen’s meeting, and her name was Angie Albrecht. As a former member of the Bridgton Planning Board, she was also concerned about uncontrolled national chain development. But rather than a ban, she suggested a moratorium.

Is a moratorium another form of extremism? We think not, as long as it doesn’t extend beyond a year. In fact, we see a moratorium as a choice that makes a whole lot of sense, with the benefit of hindsight from the last few months to guide us. Nothing has stirred up as much passion and debate in this town as the March 1 vote, not since the battle over a nuclear waste dump potentially coming to town.

With the March 1 vote behind us, each side needs to fold up shop now, and stop campaigning to get their point across. They need to let the town’s Economic and Community Development Director, Alan Manoian, use his skills as an urban planner to guide townspeople in a citizen-participatory planning process to produce a new comprehensive plan.

The problem is, that’s not what we see happening. Both Finlayson’s group, Keep Bridgton Local, and Lopez’s group, Citizens for Responsible Growth, turned out in force Tuesday to urge selectmen to create a separate ordinance review committee that would immediately start work on revising the site plan review ordinance in time to be voted on this November.

Each side has written proposals to selectmen calling for this committee to work on “a parallel track” with Manoian’s longer-term Comprehensive Planning Committee. Selectmen agreed, saying the town can’t afford to wait the 16 months to produce a new comprehensive plan. The common goal of the two sides for a new committee looks like consensus, but transparency is still lacking. The Citizens for Responsible Growth have at least four members who also serve on the Bridgton Economic Development Committee, to be renamed the Community Development Committee, and they want to play a key role in whatever changes are made. When you dig deeper it’s clear that each side is still coming from a very different place, with very different priorities.

And if selectmen aren’t very, very careful in thinking the creation of this new committee through, the whole process could simply become a continuation of the battle over competing interests.

Last September, before all the hub-bub about McDonald’s began, Manoian gave The Bridgton News an interview in which he suggested that selectmen had the option, if they so chose, to enact a moratorium on any future fast food or formula restaurant, in order to stop the clock while Bridgton’s people envision what kind of town they want in their future. He reportedly took a lot of heat from selectmen and other town leaders after the article appeared. We wonder: is it possible that some of those same town leaders might look at a moratorium with the benefit of hindsight, and realize that Manoian was right?

It’s a well-documented trend in the country that once McDonald’s comes to a town, as the number two fast food franchise after Subway, other fast food chains are soon to follow — how soon, it’s hard to say. Could it begin happening in the next six months? A year? Perhaps.

“Two-headed hydras are bound to fail,” Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz noted at the Feb. 22 selectmen’s meeting, in a conversation with resident George Bradt about how the comprehensive planning process should proceed. “I love George’s enthusiasm, but it’s Alan’s job,” Berkowitz stated.

We agree. Bradt further confused the process by producing his own brochure about the town’s comprehensive planning process and passing it out to voters at the polls, making it appear as if it came from the town. This kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by competing special interests has got to stop.

Passion and enthusiasm about Bridgton’s future brought 150 people together for the Feb. 8 public hearing, and Manoian — with his extensive experience as a planner, not to mention his own passion and enthusiasm — should be the man that guides the process. The battle is over. It’s time for Bridgtonites to trust in their public servants to lead them in creating regulations and ordinances that connect directly to the comprehensive plan. If Manoian is going to pull this off, he needs time. And a moratorium on formula restaurants, which he proposed himself back in September, would give him that time.

Let’s eliminate the sense of urgency by stopping the clock on formula restaurants for awhile, and take the time we need for some real, honest and transparent consensus-building. The summer residents are coming back soon, and this debate is far from over. Let’s not have the threat of another national chain crush that feeling of coming together we all felt on Feb. 8.

Let’s move ahead in a thoughtful, professional way, and, with the breathing space created by a moratorium, find our way into the bright promise of Bridgton’s future.

In that spirit, we’d like to invite our out-of-state subscribers who own property in Bridgton to weigh in on the March 1 vote. By some accounts, upwards of 40% of Bridgton’s taxpayers are out-of-state residents, and summer tourism has long been the engine of our downtown economy. Please e-mail us at bnews@roadrunner.com, visit the survey link on our website, www.bridgton.com, or call 207-647-2851 and tell us how you would have voted on the big box and fast food bans. We’ll post your responses in an upcoming issue.

— G. G.

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