Planning discussion gets ugly in Hampden

Posted March 01, 2011, at 10:46 p.m.
Last modified March 02, 2011, at 7:03 a.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — They kept walking through the doors of the town office, dozens of them, and they were angry. Angry with town councilors; angry with municipal staff; some were downright rude.

They wanted answers.

More than any other issue in recent town history, and maybe ever, Hampden’s recent comprehensive plan update has ignited a firestorm. Nearly 250 residents turned out at a public forum, many wearing stickers with the words “2010 Comprehensive Plan” and a black line through it, to joust with town councilors and staff.

The central concern was the implementation of a new comprehensive plan, adopted last October, that creates a template for the town to create future zoning and land use ordinances. Many residents said they feel the plan would infringe on their individual property rights by creating protected or conserved areas and discouraging economic development. Many also alleged that the council made the recent decision behind closed doors.

Tuesday’s public hearing, which needed to be moved from Town Council chambers to the adjacent but much larger community room, did little to heal what appears to be a growing rift in Hampden.

“In short, I think this plan stinks from cover to cover,” one unidentified resident told councilors.

“This [turnout] should tell you what the town thinks about what is going on,” said resident Dave LaChance. “You know, we don’t need all that many votes to get all of you out.”

Town Council Chairman Matt Arnett, who moderated the tense public meeting, said he was glad so many people came out to speak their mind.

That was before he heard what they had to say. Many of the comments were disparaging of councilors and city staff, who spent roughly three years studying and creating the new comprehensive plan.

Most residents who attended wanted nothing less than a full repeal of the 2010 plan, even though the document is technically nonbinding.

Eleanor Willey said she owns 127 acres of mostly woodlands. She said her impression from the comprehensive plan update is that she won’t be able to cut trees on her property.

“If you don’t think I’m going to cut trees, you better have people watching me every day,” Willey said to loud applause.

Willey’s impression was not accurate, according to councilors and town attorney Thomas Russell, but their explanation didn’t seem to deter the sympathetic crowd. As people like Willey spoke, the audience seemed to gather energy, and some of the comments turned ugly.

When town economic development director Dean Bennett tried to explain some of the reasoning behind elements of the comprehensive plan, members of the audience grumbled and interrupted Bennett, effectively muzzling him.

Councilor Thomas Brann, who saw a fair share of vitriol directed his way and who sat with his arms crossed through much of meeting, drew attention to the crowd’s attitude at one point. He was the only councilor to openly challenge residents.

“If you won’t allow [Bennett]  the courtesy, I don’t care about your questions,” Brann said to boos.

The negative vibe of the meeting turned some away. One resident who left halfway through the meeting said she was disgusted with the finger-pointing and personal attacks levied by townspeople.

Under an onslaught of criticism, councilors didn’t always have the answers. When they did have answers, those in attendance questioned them. If councilors indicated that some elements of the plan were dictated by state zoning laws, residents said the elected officials were passing the buck.

The only action that came out of Tuesday’s meeting was a vote by town councilors that they would not implement any recommendations of the comprehensive plan until some of the concerns are addressed.

Council Chairman Arnett conceded near the end of the three-hour meeting that the town may not have done enough to communicate with the public about the comprehensive plan.

If the current plan were repealed, the town would operate without a plan, according to attorney Russell. The town could amend parts of the 2010 plan, but that idea did not seem to resonate with residents in attendance on Tuesday.

Councilor Andre Cushing stressed that the plan does not have any weight without new zoning ordinances, which the council has not adopted

Resident Shelly Glosser said Tuesday’s meeting and the discussion that ensued exposed a sharp philosophical divide that may last until the next municipal elections.

“There is a lot of righteous outrage, but we do have to go forward and not just continue stirring the pot,” she said. “But you [councilors] have an attitude of ‘we know best.’ If you don’t listen, we will have our will at the ballot box.”

If councilors didn’t hear the concerns before Tuesday, they hear them now.

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