Hampden citizens committee finishes comprehensive plan review

Posted Dec. 01, 2011, at 10:13 p.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — A three-month-long process ended in almost anticlimactic fashion as Hampden’s Citizens Comprehensive Plan Committee took just an hour to accept its revisions and forward them on to the town council.

A 15-1 vote approving the revised plan language with one abstention was a significant endorsement, but not necessarily a ringing one.

“Am I happy with the end product? Um, it’s a better document than it was,” said Rich Armstrong, one of the 20 committee members. “I think there was a genuine issue that needed to be resolved and there was a clear communication breakdown between the council and the people.”

The committee was formed after Hampden property owners voiced a lot of dissatisfaction and outrage over the town’s updated 2010 comprehensive plan, which lays a legal framework for the town’s zoning and land use regulations. That outrage spilled over into open hostility and outbursts at town council and committee meetings.

“If it makes them feel better and helped bind the town back together, it’s a good thing,” Councilor Thomas Brann said of the citizens committee’s work. “There’s still a minority group trying to create problems and I fear it will continue.”

Armstrong was cautiously optimistic that the fissures in the community will be fixed.

“It’s going to take time. It’ll take time,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over, but the proof is in the pudding and we’ll see if the council approves it.”

Brann, who oversaw many of the meetings, seemed optimistic about the chances of adoption for most of the revisions.

“From my point of view and talking to other councilors, I don’t think there’ll be a lot of concern from a majority of the council,” he said. “I’ll make a motion [Monday night] to send that one section on to the planning board and let it be reviewed and then the council can adopt it if no further revision is needed.”

What started off as long, contentious meetings that reviewed sections at a very slow pace became faster and more productive after Dean Bennett, Hampden’s community and economic development director, took over as the committee’s facilitator.

“If there was a breakthrough, it maybe was when Dean took over.”

“He put a lot of work into this,” Armstrong said. “He took all the foolish language we were arguing over out and softening it, like changing ‘require’ to ‘consider.’”

The main sticking point centered around the original wording of the state-mandated wording governing municipalities’ comprehensive plans, according to Bennett and Armstrong.

“Initially it was required to district those conservation areas the way we did, but then the Governor’s office and State Planning Office pulled out those requirements,” said Bennett. “I think they did a very effective job, from my perspective, in changing the rules to allow towns to address these issues the way they wanted to.”

The greatest point of contention, according to Armstrong, was the requirements of the land use maps.

“Rural districts were changed to conservation districts, which concerned people about how much control they’d have over their land,” Armstrong said.

Bennett explained that the primary difference came from rural areas that contained rural conservation districts.

“They were designed as a layer over those areas of the town with the most natural resources,” Bennett explained. “The comp plan initially didn’t clarify that enough as to the intent of those areas and it was misunderstood that the intent was to take those areas and not do anything with them, but that wasn’t the intention.”

Brann said another offshoot of the citizens committee effort may be a return to annual reviews of the comprehensive plan.

“We actually had a comprehensive planning committee and they’d like to see it reformed, but I think it would work better to have the council review the plan each year, like we used to do, rather than a five-year review,” Brann said. “We need something in the middle, but I don’t know exactly what that is.”

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