Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 31, 2013
Planning for growth: a sticky topic in Blue Hill
by Rich Hewitt
The growing brouhaha over current development plans in Blue Hill is founded, many say, on the recurring concern that the town does not have adequate planning or protections in place to preserve the character of the town.
The plans for a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in town and speculation over what the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital might do with properties it has purchased on Parker Point Road have gotten residents looking for ways to prohibit any or all of those proposals.
Those concerns may be well-founded. Although some local development is regulated by state-mandated land use regulations and codes, Blue Hill has little in the way of local ordinances that would guide development and growth in the town.
At a recent planning board meeting, resident Bob Marville urged board members to seek a moratorium on commercial development in town that would give them time to develop the types of protections he said are needed. He warned that without those regulations, within six years, South Street would look like the commercial strip on High Street.
“If that’s what the town wants, then so be it,” he said.
And there’s the rub. It seems that townspeople don’t really want the kinds of land use regulations that Marville was talking about. Despite the sporadic outcry against some commercial development projects, voters in Blue Hill have not supported attempts at regulation.
“We get caught between the sensitivities that, on the one hand, ask for strict ordinances that would create zoning and designate areas that would develop in a certain way, and, at the other end, there are people who think people who own property should determine what is done with it,” said Selectman Jim Schatz. “And generally, they’re pretty far apart.”
The town has been flirting with planning since the 1960s, with comprehensive planning efforts in 1967, 1988, 1991, 1998 and 2006. The current comprehensive plan was adopted in 1998, but a more detailed update of the plan, which was three years in the making and contained language that would have provided the basis for town ordinances to guide development, was rejected in 2006 by a margin of more than three-to-one.
That last go-round left some lingering bitterness in town, much of it stemming from reaction to land use language in the proposed update to the plan, according to Bill Grindle who was then a selectman and worked with the comprehensive plan committee. Grindle said there are two different, decisively split groups in town: those who rise up against proposals such as the Dunkin’ Donuts project, and those, mostly natives, who have the “don’t tell me what to do with my property” mind set. And in 2006, the property rights folks rose up against the plan.
“The locals went crazy to stop anything that had the least hint of zoning,” Grindle said. “The comprehensive plan was 129 pages long; only four pages dealt with land use. The other 125 pages dealt with issues like parking and sidewalks and resource protection. They threw it all out because they didn’t want land use.”
That land use section was a compromise that the planning committee included in the plan in lieu of much more draconian growth management restrictions put forth by the state. That compromise language called for a 2-1 growth cap that limited the number of developments in the rural area, stipulating that for every two development applications approved for the village district, there could be just one in the rural district.
Some consider that it was that compromise language that jumpstarted a “just-say-no” campaign that eventually sunk the plan at the polls.
According to Code Enforcement Officer Judy Jenkins, a comprehensive plan is supposed to reflect the “wants and wishes” of the town, and Blue Hill residents repeatedly have said they don’t want zoning.
“The people in this town don’t want to be zoned,” Jenkins said. “They don’t want somebody in their backyard doing something, but they don’t want to be zoned.”
The 2006 plan was defeated 711-202.
The lack of zoning is unlikely to result in an influx of the predicted high profile franchises. Several people have pointed out that McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut and other large franchise giants conduct market surveys before locating their businesses anywhere. The reason they are all on the strip in Ellsworth, Schatz said, is that four million people annually drive down that road on the way to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor.
There’s just not that kind of traffic on the Blue Hill Peninsula.
But. And there’s always a but. If the national economy had not tanked five years ago, Grindle said, there probably would be two large hotels located on South Street with views overlooking Blue Hill Bay with the mountains of MDI in the distance. That, he suggested, is the kind of development that is likely to come willy-nilly, and there’s little the town can do to say what it looks like or where it goes.
Without the land use language, the comprehensive plan lacks the guidelines for ordinances that would give the planning board more control over commercial development projects. It leaves the town with what Grindle called “state-default” ordinances designed in Augusta with just the town of Blue Hill’s name added to the top. There is no zoning, no local guidelines that specify where or what type of development can take place in particular parts of town. And so, mixed use development can occur almost anywhere in town. Although other state regulations and codes govern some development in town, the site plan review ordinance is the only guide for the planning board when it deals with commercial development in most areas of the town.
And though some believe that Blue Hill has developed just fine without the benefit of zoning, others argue that the current ordinances are just not enough.
“There are very few specific things in there that pertain to Blue Hill; nothing about what the people want to see; nothing about the character of the town,” Grindle said. “Basically, it’s a check list and if you have the things on the check list, you’re good to go.”
It is a review of an application, according to Jenkins. Basically, it makes sure that certain criteria are met, such as traffic, parking, drainage and square footage.
“The board has oversight that makes sure a neighbor won’t be flooded out or disrupted at midnight by noise or lights shining in their windows,” she said. “It is not a land use ordinance; it’s not a document that limits people from doing anything.”
The ordinance could stand to be updated, Jenkins said. Language needs to be changed to reflect new state laws and regulations, and she would like to see additional requirements from developers that would give her and the planning board a little more leverage to better review applications and to certify that the development was done according to the plan the board approved.
On the other hand, Peter d’Entremont, the planning board chairman, sees the need for broader changes to the ordinance, which he has said is “diabolically imprecise.” He’s called for the board to rewrite the site plan review ordinance in a way that would provide clear guidelines for both developers and the planning board. He’s also raised the idea of developing a new comprehensive plan proposal.
D’Entremont pushed forward with that plan in January proposing that the board follow a state model ordinance to update and rewrite the site plan review ordinance. Other board members, however, seem reluctant to tackle a major overhaul of the ordinance and suggested rather that they take a more measured approach, making small changes as they go.
That’s where the selectmen stand on the issue. It appears that in Blue Hill, comprehensive planning is, well, too comprehensive. Residents don’t like, don’t want and won’t approve sweeping changes. The only alternative, according to Schatz, is to make small changes, starting with non-controversial topics that most will agree on before tackling thornier issues.
As far as the idea of a moratorium goes, it seems unlikely that it will go anywhere. Only d’Entremont expressed any interest in pursuing it. Other board members seemed reluctant to even discuss it. It’s up to the selectmen, they said, to put a moratorium ordinance before town voters. The selectmen are disinclined to impose a temporary halt on commercial development—a move that would not affect the Dunkin’ Donuts project. Although the town has adopted moratoria in the past—most recently to develop wind and communication tower ordinances—Schatz said there did not seem to be the need or emergency that would suggest that a moratorium was appropriate. He added that in these economic times, it would not be a good signal to potential businesses.
“We’re interested in the town, but we’re also interested in economic growth here,” Schatz said. “To put a hold on that kind of development—it’s not a good message to put out to people that want to do business here.”