There are only 5,500 people in the town of Bridgton, Maine, so its not clear how many big box stores would want to set up shop there — but activists in Bridgton wanted to limit the size of retail stores in their town, so they went to the ballot box. On March lst, they lost by roughly two to one.
The voters in Bridgton defeated two ballot questions: one which would have limited retail stores to 30,000 square feet, and a second that would have banned fast food “formula” restaurants like McDonald’s, Applebees and the like. The vote to reject the ban on formula restaurants was 924-472, and the plan to cap the size of retail stores went down by 957-431.
Bridgton resident Scott Finlayson, who apparently engineered both campaigns, told the local media that he wanted to prevent his town from becoming another North Windham, Maine, which is home to many national chain stores. Bridgton was hit with big box reality when Hannaford’s open a large new supermarket, and the McDonald’s applied to open a restaurant across the street. The strip sprawl was coming fast.
Finlayson took his idea to the town selectmen, to urge them to pass a zoning ordinance capping the size of stores and ending formula fast food restaurants. But when the selectmen wouldn’t think small, Finlayson helped create a grassroots group called “Keep Bridgton Local.” He gathered the necessary 229 signatures (10% of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election) and put the initiative petition on the ballot.
“This past year when we started seeing developments such as the Dunkin’ Donuts and Family Dollar store and McDonald’s being proposed, we started looking into what’s going to happen to this town if we don’t have any sort of planning in place,” Finlayson said. “We have no zoning, and our ordinances really don’t give the Planning Board or Board of Selectmen any kind of teeth in which to direct and control development.”
But limits on growth did not sit well with the local developers trying to put up a McDonald’s — even though the golden archest proposed for Bridgton was going to be a “smaller prototype” according to the developer. The landowner argued that if McDonald’s could not build in Bridgton, the result would be “catastrophic” for the town. Opponents of the measure scared voters into thinking that the 30,000 s.f. limit would have restrained Christmas Tree Farms and pick-your-own strawberry fields, which had nothing to do with the reality of the ordinance.
The ban on “formula” restaurants was modeled on ordinances that have been passed by a handful of communities across the country. York and Ogunquit, Maine, both small coastal tourist towns, have adopted formual restaurant bans similar to that proposed for Bridgton. “Formula” was defined as an establishment in which architectural design, signage, employee uniforms, the name of the business and color schemes are identical to stores in other towns.
Finlayson found himself having to defend the ordinance against the misleading charge that it would choke off all growth. “It doesn’t affect manufacturing, business offices, and the like. It’s very specific in saying it’s retail. And there’s always a variance that’s a possibility for any ordinance or amendment, and the opposition is ignoring that fact. No ordinance or amendment is so iron clad that it destroys any ability for businesses to grow or develop. That was not our point.”
The 30,000 s.f. limit was chosen in part to deal with companies like Wal-Mart which have been saying for the last couple of years that they will site stores as small as 30,000 s.f. Anti-sprawl activists wanted to beat Wal-Mart to the punch by putting up an ordinance before Wal-Mart submitted plans for a store.
“They’re targeting small communities like ours,” Finlayson told the KeepMECurrent website. “There are towns all over the country that have done economic analysis of what would happen if Wal-Mart came in.” Three years ago, the state of Maine passed the Informed Growth Act, which requires a town to do an economic and environmental impact analysis for buildings over 70,000 s.f. But the law has proved useless in dealing with Wal-Mart projects like the one in Thomaston, Maine — because the law does not outright ban larger stores.
In Bridgton, the owners of Reny’s department store, which has been around for nearly six decades, sided with “Keep Bridgton Local,” but support from the local merchants was not enough to convince voters that there was anything special in Bridgton worth preserving.
The Bridgton effort was modeled on the campaign in Damariscotta, Maine, where local voters turned away a huge Wal-Mart superstore. Sprawl-Busters worked with area residents in Damariscotta in 2007 to say Yes to a cap on retail size.
But many businesses in Bridgton came out against the two articles, including the Bridgton Chamber of Commerce — exactly the group that should have supported the growth limits. “Basically, if this is passed, is Bridgton putting forth a negative business attitude?” the head of the Chamber asked. “We’re afraid that that would come across.”
The Chamber argued that the petition wording including outside displays, and so car dealers, hardware stores and other local businesses could be impacted. The owner of a local car dealership predicted that Wal-Mart would come to Bridgton and open up a 29,999 s.f. store. Clearly opponents of the ballot questions were willing to say and do anything to defeat the ordinances.
Keep Bridgton Local was not only fighting some local business leaders and the Chamber, but the town’s Economic Development Committee and the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation. The McDonald’s developer also threatened litigation if the ordinance passed with its December 1st retroactive start date.
Opponents and supporters of the measures agreed that Bridgton has been lax about setting clear growth guidelines, and that now the town will have to come to grips with a more comprehensive plan for its future. “We may have lost at the polls,” Finlayson told the Press-Herald newspaper, ” but I feel we won a moral victory because for the first time in 30 years our town is talking about developing a comprehensive plan. We’ve managed to pull the people’s heads out of the sand.” The town is now in the process of setting up a group to take a look at Bridgton’s comprehensive plan.
It’s not known how much the “Citizens for Responsible Growth,” which opposed the ballot questions, or Keep Bridgton Local spent on the campaign, because state law does not require towns with less than 15,000 people do not require spending to be publicly reported. The corporate interests in this case are likely to have significantly outspent Keep Bridgton Local. According to the Press Herald, the voter turnout was much higher than in routine elections.
Readers are urged to email Arthur Triglione, the Chairman of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Triglione, Bridgton is the big loser of the March 1st vote on sprawl if you don’t put in place some kind of comprehensive plan or zoning protections for your small town. They don’t sell small town quality of life on any shelf at Wal-Mart — but once they take it away from you — you can’t get it back at any price.
You need to have a comprehensive plan that says where you want growth to occur, what kind of growth you want, and how big. You have the choice to lead growth, or follow it. When you let Hannaford’s and McDonald’s take the lead, you get characterless, anonymous buildings that make your town look bland and boring. It actually kills the vitality in a community, and alienates you from your own surroundings. Creative investment dries up, and only the chain stores remain.
If the March 1st vote was a wake up call — the question is: what has your town been dreaming about for its future? If its aspiration is to build Wal-Marts and McDonald’s, and to be defined by them, then you don’t need aq comprehensive plan at all.”
There are only 5,500 people in the town of Bridgton, Maine, so its not clear how many big box stores would want to set up shop there—but activists in Bridgton wanted to limit the size of retail stores in their town, so they went to the ballot box. On March lst, they lost by roughly two to one.