HAMPDEN, Maine — As town officials began planning this week to revisit a recently updated comprehensive plan that has sparked concerns among numerous residents, a staff member uncovered something in the town’s charter.
The employee brought that previously overlooked piece of information to Town Manager Sue Lessard, who brought it to town attorney Thomas Russell, who determined that, based on the new information, the 2010 plan is not valid.
As stated in Section 604 of the town’s charter, “The Town Council shall approve no changes in the comprehensive plan without the recommendation of the Planning Board.”
Although Planning Board members served on the comprehensive plan committee created back in 2006 to update the plan, the full panel did not weigh in on the changes. Section 604 of the charter also indicates that any recommendations may be overturned by an affirmative vote of five councilors, but Lessard said the council never got that chance.
The town manager notified councilors immediately late Thursday of Russell’s legal opinion and said the council would address the issue at the next regularly scheduled meeting on March 21.
“I am a little worried about how the town will see this. There have been a lot of finger-pointing and accusations,” Councilor Janet Hughes said. “I’m hoping that people will have learned that divisiveness is not going to solve the problem.”
In the meantime, Russell advised the town to reinstate the 2001 comprehensive plan until the matter is sorted out.
“This creates a situation in which, since the 2010 plan was not properly adopted, the 2001 plan was not repealed, and [therefore] the 2001 plan is the one that is currently in effect,” Lessard said.
The comprehensive plan update approved in 2001 did not suffer the same fate, the town manager said, because the committee created to consider changes was the full Planning Board.
“This is something we think the public should know because they have really been engaged on this issue,” Lessard said.
For the last several weeks, numerous town residents have contacted councilors and municipal staff and have attended municipal meetings to express concerns over suggestions outlined in the 2010 comprehensive plan.
Residents’ collective frustration came to a head at a charged meeting earlier this month and carried over to a Town Council meeting earlier this week during which councilors were asked to repeal the plan.
The biggest concern among residents has been that the plan could infringe on individual property rights, even though comprehensive plans by definition are guiding documents.
The council did not repeal the plan this week, but councilors have agreed not to implement any recommendations contained in the document until a new committee can examine it further.
“I think that we’ll take the opportunity to review the  plan again and then address some of the contentious issues,” Councilor Hughes said.