CAMDEN, Maine — News that developers would like to open a Dunkin’ Donuts in the heart of this scenic seaside community has acted like a jolt of caffeine to residents worried the chain restaurant would erode their town’s charm.
“I think that it would completely change the entire feel of the village,” said Molly Fitch of Camden as she signed her name to a letter of concern against the proposal.
Just a week after Michael Ouimet of Connecticut signed a letter of intent to lease a vacant storefront at 5 Elm St., next to the venerable French & Brawn Marketplace, community members have mobilized to show their opposition. In addition to the petition drive, there also is a Facebook group with more than 473 members. More than 100 people have written e-mails about the project to the town planner and code enforcement officer, Jeffrey Nims.
“All opposed,” he said.
Last Friday, one local man even filed a request with the select and planning boards to amend the zoning ordinance to restrict “formula fast-food restaurants.”
“I hope that the planning board can take note of the amount of community sentiment behind this,” Joshua Moore said.
But no matter how much opposition there is, Nims said, there is nothing now in Camden’s zoning ordinance to prohibit the restaurant from opening.
“The horse is out of the barn for this one,” Nims said. “If I were to deny it, all I’d be doing is inviting a lawsuit or appeal by Dunkin’ Donuts, which the town most likely would lose.”
Camden’s ordinance has two restrictions that aim to discourage fast food, Nims said. Drive-throughs are forbidden, and so-called fast-food restaurants are limited to 20 tables. Zoot Coffee, an independently owned coffee shop located a block farther south on Elm Street, also is considered to be a fast-food establishment.
On Tuesday, Zoot was a gathering point for those opposed, as people signed their names to the petition and animatedly discussed the news.
“A Dunkin’ Donuts just doesn’t fit in with the general feeling of Camden — I know that could be interpreted as snobby,” said Pat Putnam of Lincolnville.
Anna Flynn of Lincolnville also had strong feelings about the proposal.
“I can’t see a Dunkin’ Donuts being successful here, anyway,” she said. “It’s a quaint town by the ocean. People want to come in here and chat. They know that the apples come from a man in Hope. That’s what makes it so special.”
Dunkin’ Donuts could be special for Camden, too, Ouimet said. He and his business partner, Bob Jacks of Owls Head, operate several area Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants. He said they have engaged an architect to create what he called a special design that would capture more of Camden’s heritage by adjusting colors and creating a different interior from standard Dunkin’ Donuts shops. He’d like to open the restaurant by the end of the summer.
“We’re really sensitive to the town,” he said. “We love the town and we actually think it will bring some other people into those empty storefronts.”
Camden now has six or seven vacant storefronts, said Daniel Bookham, director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has not yet taken an official position on the Dunkin’ Donuts proposal, he said, but cautioned that it’s important for towns to find a way to be unique without becoming “a living museum.” For example, he said, before 5 Elm St. was vacant, it was a retail outlet, and before that it was a hardware store.
“Part of what makes our downtowns so vibrant is their flexibility and willingness to change,” Bookham said.
While Moore and others expect that many will attend next Tuesday’s planning board meeting to speak against the proposed Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s not on the agenda and there won’t be much time to discuss it, Nims said.
However, all the messages received against the project will be distributed to the planning board this week for members to read.
“The board may decide to open a future meeting to public comment on the issue before it begins work on possible [ordinance] amendments,” Nims said.