Few municipal initiatives incite passion the way new land use planning does. Even higher taxes take a back seat to the anger that erupts when property owners look at a map showing their homes in a district for which new restrictions are proposed.
Some 250 Hampden residents attended a meeting Tuesday to tell town officials they want the 2010 updated comprehensive plan put through a shredder. Though their anger is understandable, it may not be justified.
The town is a growing bedroom community for Bangor with a well-defined historic village area, sprawling residential areas in the western part of town and the potential for commercial growth along two numbered state highways. Hampden crafted its first plan in 1986, updated it in 2001 and again last year.
Comprehensive plans, required in most communities by the state so towns qualify for grants and other benefits, are a vision statement and an inventory of development and natural and cultural assets. The rubber hits the road when the plan guides town officials — usually an appointed committee — in writing a new zoning ordinance. That has not yet happened in Hampden.
Matt Arnett, chairman of the town council, understands the anxiety the new plan caused. Residents may see the plan’s maps showing resource protection areas, such as those that are heavily wooded or over an aquifer, and assume they will not be able to build houses there, even if that is not true. He also recognizes the widespread belief that land use regulations are an unwelcome intrusion into people’s lives affecting their economic future.
But the plan’s main thrust is to list and describe land areas. A district that is heavily wooded should be noted as such in the plan. What will be allowed in that district will be defined in the zoning process. Those writing the zoning ordinance need to know where those wooded areas are to protect them from over-cutting, encourage harvesting or somewhere between those extremes.
One man at the meeting threatened to clear-cut his land before new regulations prohibited timber harvesting. Clearly, such a reaction reflects a misunderstanding of the process.
Similarly, the plan’s identifying the land over an aquifer will not result in zoning prohibiting development in that area. It may, though, mean gas stations and manufacturing will not be permitted there to protect the resource. Mr. Arnett said the town water district suggested such protection.
And about the process — the plan was not written under the cover of darkness. About 30 people regularly participated in the many public meetings at which it was developed, and groups such as the garden club and historical society also assisted, representing more than 100 altogether.
Though 250 people at a municipal meeting should not be dismissed, Mr. Arnett and others suspect many of the town’s other 6,000 residents support land use planning. He also believes most of the complaints can be remedied by amending a small part of the plan. Putting the plan before voters in a referendum may make sense — as long as residents take the time to learn the facts.
There may be legitimate reasons to oppose parts of the plan. Those should be expressed persuasively to the town council. But the accusatory tone of critics, creating an us vs. them confrontation, is not appropriate for something as homegrown as a comprehensive plan.