Referendum Roundup: Mixed results on attempts to control development
(from Maine Townsman, November 2000)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

How you feel about development depends a lot on where you live in Maine, to judge by local referendum questions decided on November 7. Voters in high-growth York and Cumberland counties were the most resistant to large new commercial development, while those upstate were more supportive of new “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart, which is building or expanding in numerous locations. Wal-Mart’s supercenters total more than 200,000 square feet, dwarfing most retail construction in Maine.

Kittery voters were the first to act, agreeing in a special election on September 26 to retroactively restrict large new development in the outlet mall area along Route 1, according to Town Clerk Mary Ann Place. The controversial measure is rare in that it has the effect of revoking previous town approvals for new stores; so far, it’s not clear whether the move will face a court challenge.

Topsham had one of the loudest battles over big boxes, with supporters and opponents of a petition drive to ban megastores writing dozens of letters to the local daily, the Times Record. The question, defeated by a 3-2 margin, would have banned stores larger than 90,000 square feet or combined retail establishments of more than 150,000 feet on a single lot. Referendum opponents pointed out that the Topsham Fair Mall location, chosen for the 205,000-square-foot Wal-Mart and another store measuring 132,000 square feet, can meet traffic requirements.  The mall is adjacent to Interstate 95 and the new Coastal Connector.

Residents in Ellsworth, where additional traffic is a major concern along the Route 1 and 3 strip south of downtown, did not get to vote on a Wal-Mart supercenter and a separate strip mall. The city council turned down citizen requests for an advisory referendum.

Although a big box question was not on the ballot in Auburn, a city council candidate who campaigned against a new Wal-Mart was decisively defeated. Undeterred, big box opponents are gathering signatures for a possible referendum try next year.

Open Space

Not satisfied with a $50 million state bond issue to preserve open space that was passed last year, Scarborough voters overwhelmingly created their own $1.5 million fund to protect land from development, one of the first such local efforts in Maine. Voters also, in effect, ratified town council decisions that delayed large-scale development along Haggis Parkway by re-electing incumbents. But they weren’t entirely satisfied. While giving the council line item budget authority, they also reduced the amount the council can borrow on its own authority from $930,000 to $400,000.

Planning and Zoning

Results were mixed on zoning, planning and growth ordinances with restrictions playing better in southern than northern municipalities.

York upheld its decision to limit building permits to 84 a year – an approach shared by neighboring towns. Developers opposed the practice, but the Maine Supreme Court upheld it in a recent case involving the town of Eliot. Opponents were trying to overturn a growth ordinance enacted in August.

Zoning proposals elsewhere failed, however.

Poland voters turned thumbs down on a two-year effort by the planning board to update 25-year-old zoning laws that planners said were inconsistent with the more recent comprehensive plan.

Oakland voters rejected a first-ever zoning ordinance that the town council had defeated earlier, but which supporters brought up again by petition. In Tremont, voters reaffirmed a town meeting action that rejected zoning by a single vote. This time, the proposal was defeated 469-400, even though supporters tried to make the plan less restrictive.

In Bar Harbor, voters rejected proposals to reduce street setbacks that would have had the effect of permitting denser development downtown.

Dexter voters, however, resisted an attempt to repeal a land use ordinance in the fifth vote on the subject over the last two years. The margin this time, 939-833, may be enough to make the ordinance stick. Responding to a typical small-town situation, voters approved a new charter that will bar spouses of town employees from simultaneously serving on the council. The vote creates a dilemma for current council chair Marcia Delaware, whose husband, Michael, is public works supervisor. Councilors are checking to see whether Marcia Delaware can be grandfathered for the two remaining years of her current term.

Sticking with what works

With a few exceptions, voters seemed content with existing arrangements, and defeated attempts to restructure town government.

Freeport, which saw the town library move from downtown to beat the outlet store congestion, rejected by a 3-1 margin the council’s plan to do the same for the town hall, even though it would be the least costly way to provide more office space. The abandoned library is the only Carnegie library in Maine not still serving its original purpose.

The Wells library named for Ethel Weymouth will retain its own board of directors as voters defeated, 3-2, a plan to make it a town department. In April balloting, the same plan had been defeated by a single vote. (Calais struck a blow for its library, too, voting $150,000 to shore up a sagging foundation.)

Wells also stuck up for campground owners, rejecting stricter regulations for the 21 campgrounds in town, containing 2,250 sites. Voters did accept the gift of a 45-acre parcel from Karl, Jr. and David Hilton to be preserved as open space.

Kennebunkport declined again to adopt a solution for the tour bus influx that has troubled town officials ever since George Bush (the elder) was elected president. Voters rejected a plan to provide a parking lot for RVs and buses, but did OK a separate proposal for expanded car parking – brushing aside opponents’ complaints that it involved spot zoning.

In neighboring Kennebunk, voters backed the council’s decision to adopt a pay-per-bag trash disposal system, but barely (3,314-3,014). Councilors said the new system reduced disposal costs by $612,000 a year. Had the plan been rejected, they had prepared an emergency budget appropriation of $412,000 to contend with additional volume. In Old Orchard Beach, however, voters rejected a pay-per-bag method in a non-binding vote.

Voters in Vassalboro apparently like town government the way it is, decisively rejecting a move to create a charter commission. And Waterville will keep its strong mayor system, rejecting a new charter – initially approved earlier this year, but without a quorum – that would have reduced the mayor’s powers.

There were exceptions to the doctrine of status quo ante, however. Portland fell into line with most Maine cities by moving its poorly attended municipal elections from May to November, with an overwhelming 82 percent in favor. But there’s a catch. Petitioners failed to copy the state’s language about election day falling on the first Tuesday after the first Monday. So before 2005, the next time November 1 is on a Tuesday, Portland will have to vote on the question again.

Lebanon, a town that previously abolished its police department, decided it could do without an elected town clerk, treasurer and tax collector. Those positions will now be appointed.  Meanwhile, Arundel decided it needs more police protection, voting to spend $45,000 to have the York County Sheriff’s Department provide it.

Building Schools

Following major state efforts to allocate more money both for new school construction and renovations, local voters endorsed the new policy, approving nearly every school question on the November 7 ballot.

By a better than 2-1 margin, Saco voters approved an $8.4 million bond issue to finance renovations at all four of the city’s aging schools, including $4.7 million for the middle school. Of the total, the state will contribute $925,000, plus a $671,000 no-interest loan.

Freeport voters were equally enthusiastic about schools, voting to spend $7.6 for additions and renovations that the state has said it won’t finance. In three questions, approved nearly 2-1, voters agreed to spend $3.1 million on middle school renovations, $1.5 million for a new high school science wing, and $3 million for a 500-seat performing arts center, also at the high school. Voters also purchased a new fire truck and even declined state money to replace the Burnett Bridge, believing the state plan would require a larger bridge out of keeping with the neighborhood. Taken together with the vote to keep the town hall downtown, an apparently awed council chairman, David Soley, told the Times Record  that “It means that the town council is much more fiscally conservative than the people.”

Augusta took the first step toward replacing Cony High School, now located on a traffic-clogged site at the end of Memorial Bridge, by approving a $325,000 bond issue covering architectural design fees. Voters also approved spending $4.3 million to modernize the Augusta Civic Center and narrowly approved a third bond issue to provide 263 more downtown parking places on the hillside above Water Street. The only bond issue defeated was a $2.2 million measure to expand the city’s business park.

Windham voters gave exacting instructions on how much they’re willing to contribute to the new high school project granted state funding this year. Windham, a fast-growing magnet for commuters to the Portland area, has almost two dozen portable classrooms – possibly a record – and was the last of 13 projects funded by the State Board of Education this year. Voter approved the high school design contract by better than 2-1, OK’d spending $840,000 on an auditorium larger than what the state will pay for, but rejected $360,000 to install an outdoor track.

SAD 6, comprising Hollis, Buxton, Limington and Standish, struck a blow for educational amenities by approving $2.4 million to expand and repair playgrounds at all district schools. And in Pittsfield-area SAD 53, voters approved by better than 2-1 a $2.9 million bond for repairs to the Warsaw Middle School, Vickery School and Burnham Village School. The urgency of the work was underscored by one selectmen, who vowed to have a new roof on the middle school music room “before the snow flies.”

Not all was sweetness and light, however. A Morning Sentinel reporter noted that about 100 residents in Pittsfield, which approved two of the bond issues, voted against improvements for the Burnham Village School. In a particularly tense school committee meeting earlier this year, members were locked inside the Burnham Town Hall by protesters until a local selectman released them.

The effect of the numerous school proposals approved by the State Board of Education after the Legislature raised the annual debt ceiling is still being felt, according to Scott Brown of the Department of Education. Because of the time needed to prepare local bond issues, other projects approved this year won’t be voted until later: Edgecomb will vote on November 28; SAD 17 (Hebron Elementary School) on December 5; SAD 47 in Oakland on Jan. 23. Gorham will vote sometime in April.

And furthermore

No election would be complete without its share of reversals, surprises and unscriptable anecdotes. Here are three to remember:

• Voters elsewhere may not know what’s it all about, but you have to admire the sheer persistence of the democratic process in Southwest Harbor, where a $2 million sewer line extension through the Seawall area – half to be paid locally – was first considered at the 1999 town meeting. Fervently supported and opposed, it passed by nine votes. Outraged opponents quickly began a petition drive, leading selectmen to schedule another vote that year, and the decisive defeat of the measure. Not fair, said supporters: the petitioned article was misleading and confused the voters. Once again, selectmen allowed another vote. On November 7 the sewer line extension was approved – by 12 votes, 599-587. Only time will tell whether the will of the people is clear.

• Eustis, in the heart of deer and moose hunting country, has featured seasonal “exotic dancing” shows at a local bar, Stratton Plaza, owned by the exotically named Lola Digiovanni. Every Friday evening during November, the parking lot is jammed with pickups and SUVs. Some locals were offended, and proposed an ordinance to ban nude dancing and entertainment where liquor is served. On election day, the ban failed, 192-176. Said the owner’s boyfriend, “It sends a message that we haven’t turned to the political correctness you see in Southern Maine.”

• Finally, never underestimate a reputation gained in public service. When the Republican candidate in House District 122 withdrew in August, Peter Chase, former town manager of Glenburn, agreed to put his name forward as a substitute. Chase’s opponent was a Democratic incumbent, Daniel Williams, and Chase did no campaigning and spent nothing on the race. He retired in October and was planning to devote his time to woodworking and gardening. Lo and behold, on election day, Chase was the apparent winner – by 17 votes. There will be a recount. Chase pronounced himself “flabbergasted”, but given the reputation of former municipal officials at the Legislature, should he really have been surprised?