April 01, 2020

Belfast council extends ‘big box’ moratorium

BELFAST – By a 3-2 vote, the City Council on Tuesday night took the first step toward extending a moratorium designed to block “big box” stores and fast-food restaurants.

The moratorium was first enacted for six months in the spring after Wal-Mart approached city officials about building a Supercenter store off Route 3. The council wanted time to form committees to study the city’s highway corridors to suggest possible ordinance changes. The city ordinances did not anticipate stores as large as the 150,000-square-foot building proposed by Wal-Mart.

The moratorium banned stores 50,000-square-feet and larger, as well any businesses that generated 100 vehicle trips per peak hour. The second provision was designed to stop fast food restaurants.

Wal-Mart has since tabled any plans for a store in Belfast.

By their action Tuesday night, the council begins the process of extending the moratorium another six months. The split council vote reflected an equally divided public. Some 60 people packed the People’s Chamber in City Hall to speak, often passionately, about the issue.

The council heard 75 minutes of comments from the public, with more residents supporting the moratorium extension, though not by a great margin.

Alan Wood, a former councilor, said there was no need for an extension.

“I see very little that was accomplished” in the six months, he said. “What we’re doing is stifling the town. You can make your changes without a moratorium.

“You’ve got this concept of ‘Pleasantville,”‘ Wood continued, and accused councilors of voting their egos.

Malcolm Bryant said the moratorium was taking away his rights as the owner of a commercial property. He told councilors he would see a lawyer about pursuing a tax break, because the moratorium devalued his land.

Fran Riley, a real estate agent representing Bryant and another property owner trying to sell along Route 3, said the moratorium was blocking more than just “big box” stores like Wal-Mart.

Riley said that the Nov. 7 election of councilor Mark Riposta, an opponent of the moratorium, over Charlotte Peters, who opposed Wal-Mart, signaled the community’s sentiments on the issue. Mayor Mike Hurley took issue with that characterization, suggesting that the views of the voters who supported Peters also must be respected.

Former code enforcement officer Blaine Richardson told councilors that six months should have been enough time to adapt the ordinances.

“I wonder where the vision is?” he asked.

Happy Bradford said she favored the moratorium extension. A state task force recently reported, she said, that sprawl is costing towns and cities in Maine in increased taxes and environmental degradation.

David Loxterkamp said Belfast was bound to grow.

“There’s no question that it’s going to grow and change. It has to,” he said, but the city should plan for that growth. “I strongly support the moratorium to conclude the business that it began.”

Michael Skaling, a consultant who worked with about 120 people in Belfast in 1998 to identify concerns about growth, noted that the lack of a good plan and fears of strip development topped the list then.

“‘We need to take the time to get it right,” he said of the planning process.

Mike Towey, a former councilor whose home abutted property where Wal-Mart proposed its store, argued that property owners who felt their land was being devalued by the moratorium were stating half the story.

“In the same way he doesn’t want his property devalued,” Towey said of Bryant, “I don’t want my property devalued either.” An additional six months moratorium would be “a little blip in Belfast history,” he said.

Councilors Jon Cheston, Tammy Lacher-Scully and Mike Lewis supported extending the moratorium. Councilors Riposta and Walter Ash opposed it.

“I’m pro-business and I’m also pro-moratorium,” Lewis said. “They go hand-in-hand,” he said.

Cheston noted that parts of the moratorium could be dropped over the next six months as planning is completed.

But Riposta said the moratorium sent the message statewide that Belfast was opposed to business development.

Mayor Hurley disputed that view.

“This is not a bad place to do business. This is not a hard place to do business. We are booming,” he said.

“We are doing willingly now,” said Lacher-Scully, “what we will be compelled to do later.”

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