HAMPDEN, Maine — The town office was quiet Wednesday afternoon. Residents trickled in to pay taxes, to register their vehicles or to ask mundane questions of municipal staff.
There was no indication that less than 24 hours earlier the same building was filled with fired-up taxpayers.
In the wake of a lengthy and heated public hearing Tuesday night during which residents vented to councilors and municipal staff about the town’s updated comprehensive plan, both sides wondered Wednesday about the next step.
“I feel dreadful that so many of our residents felt harmed by local government,” Town Manager Susan Lessard said from her office. “I hope we can move forward in a way that helps to engage and involve the public so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”
Resident Ed Armstrong, one of about 250 townspeople who flooded the town office Tuesday evening, called the resident uprising over the comprehensive plan “freedom in action,” but he also said future discussions need to be more focused.
“I think people were able to speak their mind, and that was good, but some of the personal attacks could have been left behind,” he said. “Some people got a little too edgy, which made me cringe a little. You can attack the idea, but you don’t need to attack the person.”
The result of Tuesday’s meeting was a council decision to halt any action on suggestions that were outlined in the comprehensive plan that passed in October. At next Monday’s regular Town Council meeting, councilors will consider whether to repeal the plan and start over. Another option could be to amend the plan.
The bigger question could be: Can a sharply divided town come together for the common good?
Councilor Thomas Brann, who chaired the comprehensive plan committee that spent more than three years compiling information and studying land use maps, said a full repeal would ruin hundreds of hours of hard work. He also questioned the motives of some.
“A lot of people who showed up [Tuesday] were honestly concerned, but there were others who clearly had tea party and anti-government values. They just want to torpedo what we’ve done without thinking about it,” he said. “Some of those people don’t want to hear the truth.”
The anger and frustration was palpable inside the Hampden community room Tuesday as dozens of residents hurled criticism at councilors and staff.
Some said they want the council to repeal the plan and start over, but others wondered why the town needs a comprehensive plan at all. Some said they had read the plan cover to cover, but others clearly were misinformed about what the plan means.
Lessard said Wednesday that the town’s decision to update the comprehensive plan was made several years ago. The document, she said, takes an inventory of the town and its resources and then uses the findings to create or amend zoning ordinances. Although the council has approved the plan, no ordinance changes have come before the elected body, and it could be several months before that happens.
Before the update, the town had been guided by a comprehensive plan adopted in 2001 that most residents seemed to be fine with. So why the sudden change?
According to many residents who spoke Tuesday, the problems are twofold. First, they contended that the council did not do enough to seek input about the comprehensive plan. Second, residents said they felt like some suggestions contained in the new plan could infringe on individual property rights by creating protected or conserved areas and discouraging economic development.
“I will fight for my property,” resident Cindy Philbrick told councilors. “You should respect the people of Hampden and leave us alone.”
According to Lessard, the point of a comprehensive plan is to outline a template for how a town might grow. Hampden’s first comprehensive plan was adopted in 1963 and has been updated three times since. Many towns across the state have comprehensive plans that are updated periodically.
David Ryder told councilors he’s lived in Hampden for 50 years and his land hasn’t changed. So why does the town feel the need to change?
Brann said he understands the “not-in-my-backyard” philosophy shared by Ryder and many other townspeople, but he said councilors have an obligation to consider what’s best for all of Hampden.
“I think what will end up happening is that we’ll put this out to a referendum vote and that’s fine,” he said. “But this is just the beginning. If people are upset now, wait until they see the budget. There are some tough decisions coming.”
Another byproduct of the collective frustration could play out in November, when as many as four council seats could be up for grabs. Brann already has said he won’t seek re-election. After Tuesday night’s meeting, during which residents threatened to oust councilors if they didn’t start listening to the people, others may rethink their plans.
Either way, Hampden residents are paying attention to government more than ever before. Unfortunately, Lessard said, the same residents did not show up while the plan was being crafted.
She did not blame them, though. Instead, she said Tuesday night’s meeting was a sign that the town probably needs to do more — beyond sending monthly newsletters and broadcasting meetings on public access TV — to reach its residents.
“We’re at a point where people are now engaged in a real way and that’s a good thing,” she said. “I don’t know the outcome.”
Most residents left Tuesday night’s meeting satisfied that they stopped further action, Armstrong said, and they hope to have a bigger role in future planning.
If they want that role, though, they have to commit, he added.
The town’s 2010 comprehensive plan, as well as past comprehensive plans and other supporting documents, are all available on the Hampden website: www.hampdenmaine.gov.