The no’s have it: Big box, fast food bans shot down hard

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Bridgtonites turned out in droves Tuesday and spoke loud and clear: big box stores and fast food restaurants are welcome here.

JEREMY GOODWIN was one of many Bridgton residents who were taken aside by TV crews for comment after voting in Tuesday’s referendum to ban big box and fast food stores. Goodwin voted against the bans.

In a turnout likely without precedent for a special election held in the wintertime, one-third of the town’s registered voters resoundingly defeated a citizens’ initiative by a 2-to-1 margin that would have banned formula restaurants and retail stores of 30,000 square feet or larger. Voters said “no” to the fast food ban by a vote of 931 no to 472 yes. Likewise, they rejected any restrictions on the size of new retail development by an even larger vote of 963 no, 432 yes.

The “vote no” mood even extended to a third question giving residents the opportunity to apply for low interest energy improvement loans and possibly energy incentives back to the owner in cash. That vote, to adopt an ordinance creating an understanding between the town and the Efficiency Maine Trust, went down by a smaller, but not insignificant margin, of 679 no and 421 yes.

The results didn’t come as a surprise to 13-year Bridgton resident Chuck Renneker, who talked to many longtime Bridgton residents in the final days before the vote.

“A lot of them felt very strongly that they didn’t want people telling them how they wanted their town to be,” said Renneker. They saw the proposed amendments to the site plan review ordinance as anti-growth in a town that once was a major commercial service center — and could be again.

“I think people want opportunity, they want growth. People remember when there were jobs here,” he said.

Planning Board member Gordon Davis said Bridgton is a “conservative area that believes in free enterprise.” The town can manage growth along the Route 302 corridor by setting “reasonable standards” to allow national chains to co-exist with independent businesses, he believes.

A total of 1,406 voters turned out for the vote, which represents 33% of Bridgton’s 4,136 registered voters.

Scott Finlayson, whose group, keepingbridgtonlocal.com, led a petition drive that forced Tuesday’s referendum vote, said he wasn’t disappointed by the result.

“Not at all. What we’ve done, we forced the status quo to stand up and account for the problem of uncontrolled growth, and now they have to do something,” Finlayson said Tuesday night. “We’ve won a moral victory here, which has changed the paradigm. Now, Bridgton has got to stand up and do something.”

The citizen initiative arose in response to plans approved by the planning board in January to build a McDonald’s Restaurant on Portland Road, diagonally across from Hannaford’s Supermarket. Had the ban passed, the project would have been prevented from going forward because of a reach-back clause in the initiative dating back to Dec. 1, before the project was formally approved.

McDonald’s developer Mark Lopez declined comment on Tuesday’s vote when asked by The Bridgton News.

Moving forward

As polls were about to close, the Bridgton Planning Board took the first step toward substantial change, voting unanimously to recommend to the board of selectmen that they immediately form a land use regulation committee that would work concurrently with the comprehensive plan update committee. The land use committee, as proposed by resident Ray Turner, would “expedite the updating of the current land use regulations to guide Bridgton’s future,” possibly drafting a new ordinance in time to be voted on this November.

Selectmen will take up the recommendation at their next meeting on Tuesday, March 8.

Alan Manoian, the town’s Economic and Community Development Director, also wasn’t wasting time preparing for change; he had a table set up at the polls Tuesday to take names of people willing to serve on the new comprehensive plan committee. Plans for the committee had been in motion before the special election was set. However, they have been broadened to include plans for one or more “special” committees that would focus on such issues as housing and sustainable neighborhoods, along with a series of meetings to guide the development of form-based codes for both the downtown district and the Route 302 commercial district where Lopez is building the 45-seat McDonald’s restaurant and adjoining retail space.

Finlayson said he hoped the vote would have been closer than it was, but acknowledged the success of the opposition group’s campaign in arguing that the amendments were poorly researched, too restrictive, and would prevent existing local businesses from expanding.

“I don’t think what they said was correct, but people listened to it and didn’t do their research,” Finlayson said.

“I understand the demographics of this town,” Finlayson said. “Bridgton is a poor community. People here are concerned about jobs, and I understand that.” He said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will participate in the upcoming ordinance amendment process.

“It’s an option, if people want me to help, if they want my input,” he said.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Finlayson said he wished voters had realized that allowing national chains to locate in Bridgton without restrictions will, as his website states, “kill the character and uniqueness of Bridgton and tourism will suffer,” and “undercut the independent business owner and drain locally generated revenue.”

Finlayson’s website has a list of 424 communities in the United States that have beaten a big box store in their community at least once, or pressured a developer to withdraw. One of those towns was Damariscotta, featured in the documentary Our Town shown locally to around 35 people as part of keepingbridgtonlocal.com’s campaign.

Bill Macdonald, owner of Macdonald Motors in Bridgton and member of the opposition group Citizens For Responsible Growth, said his group made 1,500 “robo calls,” or automated voice messages, over the weekend. They used social media to spread their message on their Facebook page and also did an extensive e-mail campaign.

“I’m extremely proud of our town, for the many people who came out and made a statement,” he said. At the Feb. 8 public hearing, when 150 people turned out, he said it looked as though the debate was evenly divided. Tuesday’s vote, he said, shows that “obviously, this was a vocal minority” in town that supported the bans.

Among entities in town that came out to formally recommend that voters reject the questions were the Board of Selectmen, the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, the Bridgton Economic Development Committee and the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation. Also, 71 local businesses listed their names in an advertisement opposing the questions that was sponsored by Citizens for Responsible Growth.

“I think now that the amendments have been shot down, now the real work can begin (of creating ordinances) that actually make sense in this town,” Macdonald said. “People said we want jobs and we’re tired of driving outside” town to shop and make a living, he said. Macdonald said voters were swayed by the possibility that businesses like his would be prevented from expanding if the bans passed.

“If you don’t want Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, that’s fine, but don’t cut everyone’s feet off” in the process, Macdonald said. “That’s extreme protectionism.”

Macdonald said he plans to become actively involved in the planning work that lies ahead in town to shape future economic growth rules. “This is going to require some good long, hard discussion from everyone.”

Fans of the Citizens For Responsible Growth’s Facebook page celebrated their victory after Tuesday’s vote. But at least one naysayer, Jack Jolie, chimed in with his low opinion of Tuesday’s vote, quoting H.L. Mencken in saying “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

A call to collaborate

Before polls closed Tuesday, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said the special referendum was a positive event, one that hopefully will lead to consensus on the tools needed to guide future economic development in Bridgton.

“I’m hoping this is a call to collaborate, and not a warning of a lightning strike,” he said. Finlayson’s efforts called attention to the fact, said Berkowitz, that “absent of some strong tools, we’ve got some potential threats to our way of life” in town. He said there’s plenty of research data showing that some types of economic growth can come at the expense of other sectors of a community, if it is not thoughtfully done.

The special referendum cost the town around $2,500, he said, with $2,200 spent just for the ballots.

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