Hampden still fractured over comprehensive plan

Posted May 17, 2011, at 11:53 a.m.
Last modified May 17, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — Every discussion they initiate faces incredible scrutiny and nearly every decision they make is challenged.

Welcome to life as a Hampden town councilor.

What started out as concern among residents over the possible effects of a new comprehensive plan has evolved into allegations of conspiracy and personal attacks levied against councilors and staff.

The discourse has turned the town of Hampden upside down to the point that all other municipal business has taken a back seat.

At Monday night’s regular Town Council meeting, councilors realized quickly that another protracted debate over the comprehensive plan would not allow time to discuss agenda items related to the 2011-12 proposed budget.

So councilors tabled the budget items and turned attention back to the 2010 comprehensive plan, something concerned residents and townspeople have been trying for weeks to come together on. Residents have continually contended that the plan, even though it is advisory in nature, erodes personal property rights and seeks to mandate conservation.

After more than two and a half hours of debate, town councilors approved the formation of a 20-member citizens committee that will review the controversial 2010 comprehensive plan draft. Neither councilors nor residents in attendance seemed particularly happy about the vote, though.

Some residents called on town councilors to again throw out the controversial comprehensive plan draft and start from scratch, perhaps with the new citizens committee.

“The people who are against this plan keep coming out. That’s a message. Why can’t you hear it?” resident Jeremy Williams asked councilors.

Council Chairwoman Janet Hughes, visibly flustered with the tenor of the debate at Monday’s meeting, said she thought the council and the residents were working to address concerns.

Now she’s not so sure.

“I’m just as frustrated as the rest of you,” she said.

A couple of months have passed since residents first voiced their anger and frustration to the Town Council over a comprehensive plan update that some felt would infringe on individual property owners’ rights.

Since early March, the number of upset residents attending public meetings has dwindled some, but a core group remains and now has a name — the Hampden Area Landowners Organization, or HALO.

That group is committed to ensuring the 2010 comprehensive plan never moves forward and, more recently, has hired an attorney, David Crocker, to challenge the validity of Hampden’s existing comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2001.

Crocker has been involved with the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and with the most recent taxpayer bill of rights initiative.

If the 2001 plan is deemed invalid, Hampden would have no comprehensive plan and would not be able to enforce certain ordinances.

The organization of HALO also seems to have coincided with increased allegations of conspiracy by town leaders, some of which surfaced Monday.

Resident Shelley Blosser accused Town Manager Susan Lessard of exhibiting “calculated deception” by failing to provide complete information Blosser recently requested.

“I’m not so sure there aren’t abuses going on in my back yard,” Blosser said at Monday’s meeting.

Blosser explained that Lessard was not forthright about her connection to Penobscot Valley Community Greenprint, a local organization with ties to The Trust for Public Land, a liberal land conservation advocacy group based in San Francisco. The Penobscot Valley Community Greenprint also is affiliated with the Penobscot County Council of Governments, which had a hand in drafting Hampden’s 2010 comprehensive plan, Blosser said.

Other residents Monday also accused municipal staff and councilors of trying to ram through the 2010 comprehensive plan as a way to further a radical environmental and conservation agenda.

Lessard calmly explained that her involvement with the local land organization was tangential and had nothing to do with any agenda, but her words did little to assuage the public.

Councilors first began the process of updating the town’s comprehensive plan back in 2007. A draft was offered earlier this year and promptly was met with residents’ concerns, which have escalated ever since.

In mid-March, town attorney Thomas Russell concluded that the 2010 plan was not valid because it failed to go through a mandated step, but the council still has not abandoned the plan entirely.

The council’s reluctance to scrap the plan has only emboldened residents. HALO members, who are meeting again at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the town snowmobile club, said they plan to vote out any members of the Town Council who continue to support the 2010 comprehensive plan draft.

“We’re feeling the oppression of government and we’re pushing back,” resident Scott Carter said.

Hampden residents actually have a chance next month to add a new member to the Town Council to fill the seat left vacant by former Chairman Matt Arnett, who stepped down in March.

A special election between candidates Bernard Philbrick and Shelby Wright is scheduled for June 14.

Although comprehensive plan opponents have been the most vocal, not everyone is upset with the Hampden Town Council. Resident John Mahoney, who attended several meetings over the last three years as the town crafted the new comprehensive plan, sat quietly through Monday’s meeting.

However, Mahoney sent a letter last week to town councilors that offered a different opinion from the one shared by members of HALO.

“Now that the meetings have become local news by virtue of hostile and, at times, embarrassing antics, I simply can’t help but wonder where the outrage was while the plan was being written,” Mahoney said. “The town of Hampden should not suffer the consequences of being without a comprehensive plan due to a self-imposed lack of participation in the development process by a small but extremely vocal segment of the town.”

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