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Blue Hill selectmen John Bannister, right, and Jim Schatz chat with members of the town’s planning board regarding changes to the Site Plan Review Ordinance and the possibility of updating the town’s Comprehensive Plan during a joint meeting Monday night. At the table from left, Secretary Liz Snow, Chairman Peter d’Entremont, Marcia Henderson and Code Enforcement Officer Judy Jenkins.
by Rich Hewitt
Selectmen gave their support to the town’s planning board to move ahead with changes to the site plan review ordinance and work on updating the comprehensive plan.
For several months now, in the wake of contentious hearings on various commercial permit applications, board members have expressed a need for a stronger ordinance that would give the board the authority to require more information about commercial development projects in town. On Monday, the selectmen said they would support the board’s efforts to begin making changes to the ordinance.
“We’re not telling you you need to make a new ordinance,” Selectman John Bannister said, “But we’re supportive.”
Selectman Jim Schatz indicated they had included additional funds in the proposed budget for the coming year to help with the effort to revise the ordinance.
Their support came with a caution, however. Mindful of the fate of the last comprehensive plan effort, which was soundly defeated in 2006, the selectmen advised the board to move slowly and not to propose wide-ranging changes in the ordinance all at once.
“Open one little can of worms at a time,” Bannister said.
Board member Marcia Henderson asked if the board could develop several changes to the ordinance, and present them separately. Bannister said the selectmen could present the changes as individual questions on a town meeting warrant. He added that it didn’t have to happen all at once.
“It could be a multi-year thing,” he said. “If issues come up, you can amend it until you have something that makes sense to everybody.”
Henderson reflected the board’s view that there are some things that would give the board “a little more teeth,” and she warmed to the idea of presenting them separately.
“If you present them as a package, then you don’t ever know which ones people don’t like,” she said.
That’s what happened with the last comprehensive plan effort, board Chairman Peter d’Entermont said, noting that it had suffered from the “baby with the bath water syndrome.”
Although board members generally praised the work of the last comprehensive planning committee, they said the proposed plan had suffered from too much input from the state.
“They took the heat for something that they didn’t add to the plan,” Kenneth Charles said.
The conversation drifted between the site plan review ordinance and the comprehensive plan with the general feeling being that each should be developed without too much help from outside the town. Although d’Entremont had favored rewriting the site plan review ordinance based on a state model, most of the board had previously indicated a preference for tackling specific issues and revising the existing ordinance.
Board members seemed to be leaning in the same direction with the comprehensive plan, discussing ways to use the 2006 ordinance or at least large portions of it, as the basis for a new comprehensive plan. Vaughn Leach said that while he was not a big fan of comprehensive plans, he wondered if there was a way to do something simple to get state acceptance and then adapt it locally, one item at a time.
Both Bannister and Schatz cautioned the board about trying to accommodate the state.
“If you want to please the town, that’s one thing,” Bannister said. “If you want to please the state, you’re going to have to model it on what they want.”
Schatz agreed, adding “a comprehensive plan should be a town-made document.”
The comprehensive plan will be a longer term project. No committee has been appointed to begin that process although the selectmen agreed that the planning board should take the lead in that effort. The revisions to the site plan review ordinance, however, can begin immediately. D’Entremont noted that at the recent public hearing on the South Street Dunkin’ Donuts development, one resident had recommended bringing in Friends of Mid-Coast Maine, to help guide the town to develop the kinds of ordinances it wants. He proposed bringing a representative from that group to talk with the board or a wider group of residents, but other board members wanted more information about the group, and asked for a résumé, description of the group and what they do and the cost.
“I won’t go for paying a representative from some group until I know who and what we’re paying for,” Charles said.
In the end, the board decided to include two straw poll questions on the ballot for the upcoming municipal elections at town meeting.
Those questions are:
“Do you want the Blue Hill Planning Board to have any control over the design of new buildings in the downtown area?”
“Do you want the Blue Hill Planning Board to have any control over the design of commercial buildings outside the downtown area?”
Responses to those questions will help guide the board as it makes changes to the ordinance.
The selectmen said they already will have several other straw poll questions prepared for the annual town meeting and the planning board questions could be added on the straw poll ballot.
Work already has begun on renumbering the site plan review ordinance to make it easier to reference, but no changes have been made yet to the ordinance. Any revisions will be presented to voters at a town meeting.