HAMPDEN, Maine — Can a town force property owners to conserve land?
That’s one concern shared by a growing number of Hampden residents, who are upset with possible ordinance changes that have grown out of a recent update to the town’s comprehensive land use plan.
Town councilors have scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at the Hampden Town Office to address concerns and explain the rationale behind the changes to the land use plan.
Already a group of about 25 residents has asked the council to reconsider the October 2010 update to the comprehensive plan, and some are threatening a citizen-initiated repeal.
“We’re convinced that, based on attending some of these sessions, that their attitude is, ‘We’re going forward with this hell or high water,’” said Shelley Blosser, one of the residents.
Town Council Chairman Matt Arnett, however, explained that the comprehensive plan update passed last fall is simply a guide that the town will use to update zoning and land use ordinances. He said he and his colleagues are happy to further educate residents about any proposed changes and to respond to concerns.
“We take seriously these concerns, and we hope to use those points of view as we update our ordinances,” Arnett said. “This town has viewed itself as wanting to preserve rural character while allowing for both residential and business development. We’re trying to balance both.”
Next week’s public hearing was scheduled after two dozen residents attended a strategic working Saturday, Feb. 5. Most concerns focused on whether the changes would limit property rights or reduce property values. Others felt that the Town Council was not being open about its decision making. Still others were upset that the town consulted with an out-of-state planning expert.
Blosser admitted that she did not pay close attention when town councilors first discussed updates to the comprehensive plan. She said she trusted her elected officials to make decisions in the best interest of taxpayers.
However, after she learned that the new comprehensive plan had been adopted, she began looking into some of the changes.
From her interpretation, a landowner who applied for an annual permit to cut wood from his property could be told that those lands are now protected. She said another property owner who applied for a permit to replace an existing deck on his water-view property could be denied because the home is now designated “noncompliant property” outside approved residential areas.
“It seems like they are trying to mandate conservation on private land,” Blosser said of councilors.
Peter Brown, another concerned resident, said he believes that the town is trying to take away individual property rights.
“I do not know very many people that want to share a driveway, septic system and-or well with their neighbor, and I for one have no interest in living in a ‘clustered’ subdivision and be forced to provide open space for all to use,” Brown wrote in a recent letter to councilors.
Arnett, however, said the council has a responsibility to balance the concerns of property owners who are worried about losing rights with residents who are concerned about preserving Hampden’s open spaces.
In fact, that balance was referred to specifically by a resident at a recent meeting, Arnett said.
Town councilors, the town’s director of economic and community development, and the town attorney all plan to attend next week’s meeting to answer questions and to respond to concerns.