Strategy set for wastewater vote

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Overwhelmingly, Bridgton residents and downtown business owners are appreciative of the effort the town is making the second time around to help them understand the Sewage Ordinance changes they’ll be voting on in June.

That’s according to Greg Lane, a public relations consultant the town has hired to highlight the need for a new way of assigning wastewater flows, so that unused capacity can be granted for new development. When the revised ordinance went before voters last November, misinformation predominated, along with false fears that the new ordinance will mean new costs to taxpayers. The revised ordinance was rejected by a vote of 424 in favor, 575 against.

Since then, more than a few new development proposals have had to bargain hard with the town to buy enough sewer allocation to meet their needs (see story, “New retail projects await sewer vote,” elsewhere in this paper). The available capacity was quickly depleted for use by such projects as the new Chalmers Insurance building now under construction, and currently there is no allocation remaining under the Sewage Ordinance now in place.

That’s why town leaders see passage of the new rules as crucial to the future of downtown development, not only for new construction but also so that existing buildings can be redeveloped for commercial use. At the April 28 meeting of the Wastewater Committee, Lane outlined the key strategies of his information campaign, foremost of which are plans to go door-to-door to talk to the residents most likely to show up at the polls on Tuesday, June 14.

Question 1 on the June 14 referendum asks: “Shall an Ordinance entitled “June 14, 2016 Amendments to the Bridgton Sewage Ordinance to Promote Economic Development in the Downtown Area by Revising the Current Method of Sewer Allocation to Free Up Existing Unused Capacity in the Bridgton Sewer System” be enacted?”

It might sound like a mouthful, but the Board of Selectmen were advised by the town lawyer that they could include their reasoning in the question, in order to make it more understandable.

Lane has researched the likely voter pool in Bridgton, and estimates that around 900 voters show up in any given year to vote in a local election when no statewide issues are involved. Most of these voters are age 60 and older; surprisingly, he said this age group comprises over 80% of Bridgton’s 5,200 population. They also are predominately female, regular readers of The Bridgton News and generally active in the community.

Nearly half of them live close by or on the Route 302 corridor, and it is here that Lane’s company, Next Generation Strategies, will focus its door-to-door efforts.

“We believe we have a plan that will be effective. We’ve done this too many times not to,” he said. If the person isn’t at home, they’ll leave “doorknob hangers,” offering a concise explanation of Question 1 in a form more likely to be read than discarded.

Secondly, Lane said he’ll leverage stakeholders in Bridgton, such as town staff, committee members and business leaders, who are highly involved in town and meet with each person, either individually or at their meetings, to enlist their support and active participation in securing a “yes” vote.

Wastewater Committee member Al Hayes of Hayes True Value told Lane it will be important to stress that the ordinance revisions won’t cost the taxpayers anything. In fact, the changes will open up potential for new users and for expanded users, which will in turn lower the rate per gallon for everyone.

Member Chuck Hamaty of Maine Street Graphics noted that all of the town’s residents will benefit, whether they are on the system or not, because of the resulting expansion to the tax base and the vitality of the downtown.

Member Lucia Terry of Perennial Point of View told Lane not to ignore the environmental message, saying many voters would welcome the news that properties will be able to hook up to the system instead of installing a private wastewater disposal system, which can and does eventually fail. Among residents top concerns when researching the Comprehensive Plan was protection of the town’s water bodies, she noted.

“Even people who don’t know if they really want things to grow or to change” can rally around protection of water resources, Terry said. Hayes added that when the sewer system was originally installed to comply with the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, the intent was to protect Stevens Brook that runs through the downtown.

Lane said he has spoken to business owners in the downtown, and they are “generally open-minded” to the changes because they know the new billing system will help the downtown grow.

Hamaty told Lane to “be careful about talking about future expansion of the system,” because it is not in any way a part of the ordinance revisions and should be considered a discussion for another time.

“The issue is to use this excess capacity that’s not being utilized,” Hamaty said. The focus needs to be that “We’ve got so many excess gallons, and we want to use it.”

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