April 26, 2018
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Big Boxes and Town Hills

The phrase “big box” has become a pejorative term in many parts of Maine and elsewhere in New England. Here’s the proof: When was the last time a mayor proudly cut the ribbon on a new retail establishment, welcoming it by name as a “big box” — fill in the blank with home improvement, general merchandise or grocery — retailer?

No, most of us understand that big box retailers are a breed apart from the Mom-and-Pop hardware store, the homegrown local lumberyard and the grocery store that has been in town under one name or another for decades. Big boxes are large; they typically take a cookie-cutter approach to development, replicating a plan used elsewhere around the country; they employ local people, but management decisions are made far away, and their existence puts the hurt on one or more local businesses.

An underlying question in the debate over a new Hannaford grocery store in the village of Town Hill within the town of Bar Harbor is whether it can be tagged with the typical negatives associated with big box development. At 35,000 square feet, the scope of the project may be more of a medium-size box; Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart Supercenters and the like are often 100,000 square feet and larger. And Hannaford is essentially competing with itself by building a new store. Elsewhere in Maine, Hannaford store managers are empowered to respond to local concerns, and locals are employed in midlevel management.

Still, residents have decried legitimately what they believe will be the loss of the small-town character of their village if the Hannaford project is built. This is often at the heart of opposition to big box stores.

Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island are unique places in Maine, hosting New England’s only national park. Local concerns about defiling the natural beauty and small-town charms are well considered. Yet, while the Town Hill area may be relatively removed from the hubbub of Cottage, West and Main streets, Bar Harbor is not quite a Norman Rockwell-type small town. Some of the hotel properties in and around the downtown area would dwarf the Hannaford store.

A Bar Harbor town councilor has suggested adopting a 180-day moratorium on nonresidential developments greater than 1,000 square feet. The idea, Julia Schloss says, is to give town officials time to update existing ordinances so they match the recently updated comprehensive plan.

This seems like a sensible approach. The issues that most rankle are often the lighting scheme, building design, the number of curb cuts, and the layout of access and egress roads, parking, the hours of operation and how and when deliveries are made. These can be ironed out, if the planning board is empowered by an ordinance to insist on changes.

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