Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 3, 2017
Citizens may play role in changing town ordinances
by Anne Berleant
Change begins from within, an axiom that holds true for towns that operate under the town meeting form of governance.
In Blue Hill, with no zoning ordinance and a comprehensive plan that holds individual landowners’ rights as due “careful consideration when planning and forming new ordinances,” citizens may, and do, protest the location and type of commercial development at a public hearing. But the avenue to change is through the planning board and board of selectmen, or a citizen’s petition for a town meeting warrant article proposing to amend or create a new ordinance.
A recent planning board hearing on a commercial site plan application for a South Street property that will likely be filled with a Family Dollar store was the latest case in point. While many people at the hearing spoke out against a dollar-type store in Blue Hill, most were well aware that within the site plan review criteria, it would be approved.
“Every time someone comes to town [with an application], we all come out,” David Wardmansky said before asking the board to “revisit” the comprehensive plan.
The most recent attempt at revising the comprehensive plan overwhelmingly failed a town vote in 2006. A consensus among planning board members to try again in 2014 never gained a foothold although amendments to the commercial site plan review ordinance were enacted that year.
The fear for many who speak out is that South Street will turn into Ellsworth’s High Street, a commercial strip designed for shopping and cars. In 1998 it was Rite Aid. In 2013 it was Dunkin’ Donuts. In 2017, it’s Family Dollar.
“Do we really want South Street to become another High Street, Ellsworth? Because that’s the way we’re headed unless the trend is stopped now,” one person commented on the Save Blue Hill Petition started by Olivia Bruno after the recent hearing.
The petition asks community members to support “a creation of a more comprehensive list of ordinances (and/or creation of a zoning board) that would protect our home in the years to come,” and it has garnered around 300 signatures. A sentiment rather than a legal document, Bruno plans to present it to selectmen.
At the same time, some citizens favor the development trend: “I support you 100 percent,” Rachael Leach told developer Tom Ellis, who submitted the recent South Street commercial/retail application. “There are people in this town that will support you, too.”
The planning board is the governing body that approves such applications based on existing ordinances, and normally creates or amends existing ordinances or (in the absence of a specific committee) the comprehensive plan, with the board of selectmen’s input and review. The town then votes whether to accept the changes or new ordinance/plan at a town meeting. Citizens may provide input at planning board meetings, held every second Monday of each month at town hall at 7 p.m., speaking at the chairman’s discretion or under “public comments” if that is an agenda item. Any action based on public input is done so at the discretion of the board.
Citizens may also propose new ordinances or changes to existing ordinances through a petition to place warrant article(s) before the town. The petition must have signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the town’s last gubernatorial election. Selectmen are then required to hold a town vote, either at open town meeting, special town meeting or as a referendum vote, whether they or the planning board supports the proposed article(s). Selectmen usually have the town attorney review articles to validate their legality; however, once a petition is submitted it can’t be revised but a new petition must be submitted.
At the most recent hearing, Planning Board Chairman Scott Miller encouraged the public to attend the monthly planning board meetings, although he noted in a recent email:
“I suspect that our current ordinance criteria broadly reflect the town’s chosen balance between protecting individual property owners’ rights and fostering a community in which one party’s actions don’t unduly adversely affect the community. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.”