April 09, 2020

Bar Harbor mulls building moratorium> Residents are concerned how Rite Aid expansion would affect town

BAR HARBOR — A Rite Aid spokeswoman tried her best Tuesday night to alleviate fears from residents that her company is planning to expand its present store here or to build a larger one.

Despite Cheryl Marsh’s statements that Rite Aid has “no specific plans” for construction in the area now, some residents at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting weren’t comforted. Several urged officials to place a moratorium on construction downtown to give the town time to review its zoning ordinances and to decide whether large-scale commercial structures, such as those Rite Aid has built in other Maine towns, are appropriate here.

“[Rite Aid’s] goal as stated in the Wall Street Journal is to open 100 stores each year,” a wary Liz Kase told councilors. “I lived in Harrisburg [Pa.] and there are Rite Aids every street corner.” A large Rite Aid here, Kase said, would strip business from locally owned convenience stores, a result Kase called “in contrast with the philosophy of living in a village area.”

Despite similar concerns voiced by half a dozen other residents, town councilors held off on making any decision on the building moratorium — recommended unanimously by the town planning board two weeks ago — until the town’s attorney has reviewed it to his satisfaction.

Tuesday’s discussion builds on a spirit of distrust and dislike for Rite Aid that has grown in recent weeks. Although Marsh reiterated Tuesday that her company is not actively looking for property on which to build a store larger than the Rite Aid already in town, several residents recently confirmed being approached by brokers who identified themselves with Rite Aid about selling to them.

In addition, planning director Jim Campbell said his office has been contacted by an Augusta architecture firm claiming affilation with Rite Aid about details on two properties on upper Main Street.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the planning board cited concern that an expanded Rite Aid would detract from Bar Harbor’s aesthetic continuity. Members unanimously recommended passing a six-month moratorium, specifically, on new construction in excess of 5,000 square feet of single commercial, retail, restaurant, multifamily dwelling, manufacturing, liquor store, professional office building or transient accommodation use. It also would prohibit expansions or enlargements of such properties now less than 4,500 square feet to more than 5,000 feet.

The moratorium, drafted during a 30-minute break at the planning meeting by Town Attorney Rick Violette, stated that “serious public harm would result from development that altered the essential character and appearance of the downtown area of the town of Bar Harbor.” By law, moratoriums can be approved if serious public harm is imminent.

On Tuesday night, Marsh said that if Rite Aid ultimately does choose to expand in Bar Harbor, the company would be willing to go through the process of making sure its store fits the town’s needs and architecture. Resident Sam Coplon said that wasn’t possible given Bar Harbor’s inadequate zoning ordinances. “The problem is, we have no process in place. There is nothing for them to work with,” Coplon said.

After lengthy discussion, Campbell said he felt that Violette would want to review the language he drafted quickly two weeks ago before it was adopted. Councilors said they will revisit the issue at their next meeting.

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